New state budget increases funds for day schools

New state budget increases funds for day schools

Administrators, however, ‘not satisfied’

State funding for private and parochial schools still pales in comparison to that of public schools. Photos courtesy Teach NJS
State funding for private and parochial schools still pales in comparison to that of public schools. Photos courtesy Teach NJS

In a budget signed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the early morning of Independence Day after weeks of partisan wrangling and a stalemate that led to three days of a government shutdown, lawmakers allocated $33.1 million in state aid for non-public schools. Of that amount, around $11 million will go to Jewish day schools and yeshivas, an increase of $1.7 million over the $9.3 million that was budgeted in 2017. 

Some are pleased with the end result. Others are not.

“I am totally not satisfied with the state allocation,” Steven Karp, executive director of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “Compared to the funding the public schools get, it’s pennies on the dollar.”

Although Karp would agree that the passage of a state budget that provides big increases in funding for secular programs at private schools is a positive step, he and another day school administrator don’t think they’re getting their fair share of aid compared to public schools. 

“When it comes to the secular subjects, and technology, nursing, security, textbooks, we should get equally paid for that,” Karp said. 

The allocation breaks down to $264 per student in Jewish and other non-public schools, the largest allotment in New Jersey history. The monies will be applied to four crucial sectors, according to Teach NJS, a multi-denominational coalition comprised of day schools and some federations formed by the Orthodox Union that has been lobbying for state aid to non-public education since 2015. 

The largest increase was $4 million allocated for school security, which comes to $75 per student; last year, it was $50 per student. The amount allocated per students for security has tripled since 2015. 

Another $4 million was provided for nursing aid for the 150,000 New Jersey students who attend private and parochial schools, some 42,000 of whom attend Jewish day schools. The additional funds represent a $750,000 increase from 2016 monies. 

Additionally, the schools will receive $1.6 million in technology assistance and $2.4 million toward purchasing textbooks. The aid will be equally apportioned to each Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, and non-sectarian private school student. 

Adam Shapiro, head of school at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, told NJJN in an email that he appreciated the state’s continued support of private school technology, nursing, and security programs. But like Karp, he complained that it’s not on par with the per-student funding of many local public-school districts. 

Money for safety and security programs, Shapiro said, “should not be determined based on where parents have chosen to place their children.” Rather, “the safety and security of all school-aged children is of paramount importance and thus all students must be equally protected.” 

Karp expressed skepticism that the day schools would even receive the amount promised, insufficient as he believes it to be.

“We never count our chickens until they hatch,” he said. “In the 17 years that I have been here, it’s not often that the state actually keeps all of their promises…. We would like for our politicians to keep their word when they promise to support the non-public school systems.”

Karp said he will earmark the new security allocation to upgrade protection at Bruriah, JEC’s all-female high school. He said the security systems at his two campuses are more than a dozen years old. As far as dollars for nursing are concerned, “we don’t even get a say on that. The money goes to the city of Elizabeth, and they give it back to us.” He said last year’s nursing allocation of $71,150 wasn’t enough to cover all the students at both campuses, forcing his school system to raise additional funds to hire a nurse.

Others such as Gordon Haas, president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, praised the government for its efforts. “We are pleased and grateful that the state has responded favorably to our advocacy efforts on behalf of community priorities.” 

In a July 6 conference call, Sam Moed, cochair of Teach NJS, said that the monetary achievement “represents a statewide collaboration of schools, Jewish federations, and the Orthodox Union working across denominations on an issue so central to Jewish continuity in New Jersey.”

He said such advocacy “put building blocks in place that will allow us to actually unlock the bigger long-term goals which can actually bring much more significant dollars.” 

Also on the call was Josh Caplan, state director of Teach NJS, who told a group of journalists and Jewish educators that “the bottom line is pretty good, but we have a long way to go.”

In an interview following the conference call, Caplan told NJJN that other states give funds to private schools “that we have not taken advantage of,” such as the “groundbreaking effort” in New York to have funds to pay for teachers of science and technology in private and parochial schools. He urged lobbyists for non-public schools “to bring such things to the attention of legislators in our state.”

Caplan said that private schools must have the same funding for security as public schools. “When Jewish institutions and other religious institutions have been targeted, we have a responsibility to protect them, especially children,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you go to Catholic school, Methodist school, Lutheran school.”

Caplan cited last month’s decision by the United States Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which ruled that a state cannot deny funds to a church because of its status as a religious organization. “It really strengthened our legal and constitutional grounds that government has to be neutral in terms of funding for programs.”

Regarding the high cost of tuition for Jewish day schools, Caplan noted that states other than New Jersey provide tax credits to those who donate to scholarship funds at private and parochial schools, which can motivate people to support these institutions.

“Our state does not have public tuition assistance yet, but aid from the state in whatever form is appreciated and is something we will advocate for,” he said.

Caplan was buoyed by a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in which he said she indicated that she hoped “to make more resources available to non-public schools. I can’t really say how much is the upside, but the upside is pretty impressive.” Meetings with those who have the power to make a difference, like the one with DeVos, should be more common, he said. “We have to make ourselves more visible” in the arena of public advocacy. 

Caplan explained that the success of private and parochial schools should be of great interest even to those whose children attend public schools. Each student in a public school can cost taxpayers around $20,000, he said. When a non-public school closes and its students transfer to public schools, taxpayers will feel the financial burden of taking on the additional students.

“A public-school system is great for everybody. It is great for all taxpayers and all residents in every town,” Caplan said, “but a viable non-public school system is [also] very important financially for taxpayers.”

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