Bill okays religious option for special needs

Bill okays religious option for special needs

The New Jersey Assembly’s education committee has approved a bill that could make it possible, in some cases, for local school districts to refer special-needs students to Jewish private schools and other sectarian special education programs.

The bill (S1929 or A2869) awaits a vote in the full Assembly and has yet to be introduced in the Senate, but it has bipartisan supporters in both houses in Trenton.

If approved, it would represent a significant lobbying victory for Joshua Pruzansky, who was hired last year to head the New Jersey branch of the Institute for Public Affairs, the Orthodox Union’s lobbying arm. The OU has made state assistance to Jewish day schools a top priority. It recently opened an office in Teaneck that will focus on voter registration and turnout in the Orthodox community.

Currently if a school district does not have an appropriate public school placement for a child with disabilities, it can pay for a private school — but under the current NJ statute, that private school must be nonsectarian.

The bill would remove that nonsectarian restriction and allow placement in “accredited” private schools. The bill would allow the district to pay for only nonsectarian portions of school services.

Pruzansky says the bill does not violate the separation of church and state. In an op-ed (see he pointed out that religious students receive funding from the state for transportation, textbooks, nursing aid, and more, and that federal Title 1 and IDEIA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) funding offers a religious option for children.

“It is hard to understand why there would be difficulty passing this bill since the law already allows for nonpublic schools to accept these students,” wrote Pruzansky. “The fear that government funding will pay for religious studies is not one that holds weight since the wording of the law makes that an impossibility.”

Opponents of the bill include the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“This bill serves solely to eliminate the bar on taxpayer funding of sectarian services, which violates the Constitution and our founding principles of religious freedom,” wrote Janice Rael, the group’s vice president, in written testimony to the Assembly Education Committee.

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