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State commission to study private school funding
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State commission to study private school funding

Corzine makes good on campaign pledge to Orthodox voters

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Advocates of greater state aid to parochial schools are applauding outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine for making good on a campaign promise.

On Dec. 22, he signed an executive order establishing the Non-Public Education Funding Commission.

Its 23 members will consider the high cost of private school tuitions — most notably in Jewish day schools — and whether those expenses can be abated by grants, charitable incentives, and funding of school equipment “to most effectively utilize state and federal funds within legal boundaries.”

The commission will be cochaired by Assembly Member Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36) an Orthodox Jew from Passaic, and George Corwell, director of education for the NJ Catholic Conference.

Although Corzine has opposed most state aid to parochial schools as an unconstitutional breach in the separation of church and state, he pledged to appoint such a commission when he met with leaders of the Orthodox Union in October during his unsuccessful reelection campaign.

“I don’t think of it as a ‘Corzine commission’; I think of it as a ‘New Jersey commission,’” said Howie Beigelman, the OU’s deputy director of public policy. “If there is something the state ought to be doing and it’s not doing — that is not something that depends on the political will or elected officials to make sure it is going through.”

Corzine, a Democrat, will leave office on Jan. 19.

Gov.-elect Chris Christie, a Republican, assured the Orthodox community during the campaign that he supported tax credits for private school tuitions.

“But the legislature is not necessarily in that same place,” Beigelman told NJ Jewish News. Both the State Senate and the Assembly are controlled by Democrats.

Joining the OU in applauding the governor’s move was Agudath Israel of New Jersey, an organization representing the state’s haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community.

Agudath Israel called it a “burden” that families paying private school tuitions must also pay taxes for public education.

“The parents of non-public school students not only carry the financial burden of their own children’s education, but also — by living in the highest-taxed state in the country — carry the financial burden of public education as well,” wrote Rabbi Josh Pruzansky, the organization’s director, in a press release.

(Forbes magazine lists New Jersey fifth among most-taxed states; Vermont tops the list. In a note to NJJN, Pruzansky said he was citing the Tax Foundation Website, www.taxfoundation.org, where NJ has the highest state/local tax burden in the nation and the highest per capita property tax.)

One solution both Orthodox groups support is a bipartisan bill sponsored by State Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) and Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Dist. 21). It would allow corporations to receive tax credits for making donations to nonprofit agencies that provide scholarships for students with family incomes on or near the federal poverty level. The legislation would be launched as a $5 million pilot program. Students in such heavily Orthodox areas as Elizabeth, Passaic, and Lakewood would ostensibly be some of its prime beneficiaries.

“I know that Christie is supportive of the bill,” said Beigelman.

Families with students in Jewish day schools are also looking to expand or clarify publicly funded special education services for children in private schools.

“A lot of parents have to fight with school districts to get everything they are entitled to under the law,” he said.

Pruzansky said he is looking to expand public funding beyond textbook and nursing aid and transportation.

The commission’s members will include the state treasurer, attorney general, and education commissioner; nine representatives from the private school sector; two state legislators; and experts in education and nonprofit grant-writing.

Its tenure expires in June.

One critic of the commission is Paul Tractenberg, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Tractenberg is a long-time champion of public education who has waged court battles on behalf of school funding for low-income communities.

“It is disturbing to see competition between Democrats and Republicans to direct funds in this time of scarce public resources to nonpublic schools,” he told NJJN.

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