Meeting in Teaneck, members of the Orthodox community made the case for extending public funding to parochial schools in front of 20 local and state elected officials.
Solutions to what some participants call the “tuition crisis” dominated the Orthodox Union’s Inaugural Legislative Breakfast, held at Congregation Rinat Yisrael Sept. 18. Some 310 people attended the program.
“The elephant in this room,” said Passaic Assemblyman Gary Schaer, is the “issue of affordability of education.”
The legislators in attendance — including Livingston Council members Deborah Shapiro and Michael Rieber, both Republicans — heard details on various initiatives supported by the OU, including the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Coauthored by Schaer, the legislation would provide tax credits for contributions made to organizations that offer scholarships for low- and middle-income children to attend both public and private schools.
Critics of the act say it violates the concept of separation of religion and state by providing a type of back-door way of funding private and parochial schools.
“How many people are here today because they want to do something about the affordability of their children’s education?” asked Josh Pruzansky, the OU’s new regional director of public policy for New Jersey.
He was greeted with a round of applause.
“Now is the time to make the pitch to our community,” he added. “We’re all investors in this room.” He noted that 60 percent of New Jerseyans’ property taxes are earmarked for education, and “very little, if any, comes back to help our children,” who tend to enroll in day schools and yeshivot.
“We’re bleeding terribly, and we’re hurting,” agreed the OU’s executive vice president, Rabbi Steven Weil.
The OU is part of a broad-based coalition supporting the Opportunity Scholarship Act. It also supports recommendations by former NJ Gov. Jon Corzine’s Study Commission on Nonpublic Schools, including restoring technology aid to private schools and increasing public funding for their nursing services and special education.
Speakers also addressed concerns regarding the possible suspension of “in lieu of” payments provided to parents of private school children who do not receive town busing (state law requires such payments if public school children receive busing). The Springfield Board of Education has a complaint before the state arguing that requirements that it offer “in lieu of” payments violate New Jersey’s constitution.
While “public schools are the fundamental backbone of any society,” said Schaer, the funding of private and parochial schools is “a national issue to which we must subscribe.”
David Hespe, the chief of staff of the NJ Department of Education, provided more than a sympathetic ear to the breakfast attendees.
“2011 is going to be the year of education reform in New Jersey,” he said, quoting his boss, NJ Gov. Chris Christie. Voicing support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, he said, “The time now is to move this pilot program forward.”
Legislators, while heavily representing Bergen County, also included Monmouth County Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Dist. 13) and Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller.