In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously stated that “All men are created equal.”
We often wonder whether children are included in this statement. Aren’t kids created equal as well?
We only ask this question because there is a stark difference in the treatment of children with special needs when it comes to our state’s investment in education.
For a chance to find success in the future, these kids require a more specialized educational program, including therapeutic services, than their peers.
On its face, it appears that New Jersey seems to understand the unique needs of these children. New Jersey has a Special Education law that permits school districts to assign special-needs students to an out-of-district school if necessary, even if the school is nonpublic. This range of options for special-needs children takes into consideration the unique needs and educational settings required for each student. However, this law lacks one critical educational setting: The only school a special-needs child cannot be assigned to is a sectarian school, i.e. a religious school.
When asked why the Special Ed law excludes religious schools, most people tend to respond with the usual separation-of-state-and-church argument. “It is unconstitutional,” they say, “to spend government dollars on religious education.”
That is what most people say. However, here in New Jersey, there are plenty of constitutional ways for religious students to receive funding from the state. They include transportation, textbooks, nursing aid, and more. Federally, religious students are eligible for Title 1 and IDEIA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act) funding — service-based funding that offers a religious option for children.
Leaders in the Legislature agreed with our assessment that New Jersey law as currently written is unfair and agreed to amend it and create more options for children with special needs.
We support a bill that will simply eliminate the restriction on students being placed in a sectarian non-public school. There was even language inserted that would restrict the funding to nonsectarian services and programs exclusively. This would effectively eliminate any issues or concerns pertaining to funding for religious education.
The bill passed the Assembly Education Committee by a 9-0 margin with one abstention. We thank the prime sponsor, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) for her leadership in moving the bill along with the Assembly Education Committee chair Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex). Now it heads to the Senate Education Committee where the sponsors of the bill are Senators Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) and Jennifer Beck (R-Red Bank).
Although we went to great lengths to satisfy all the requirements, we are faced with serious challenges by the status quo organizations in Trenton more concerned with protecting their interests instead of the needs faced by our most vulnerable children.
It is hard to understand why there would be difficulty passing this bill since the law already allows for nonpublic school students to accept these students. 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.
As I once heard: If there is a legislative will there is a legal way.
My experience has shown that a natural familiar environment is crucial for the successful development of a child with special needs. For these children, if a school district is unable to accommodate their needs, then the option of an accredited sectarian non-public school must be on the table.
For many children, the difference between a future of success and failure lies in the bricks of the building they call school.
We need help in moving this bill along. Reach out to your legislators. Ask them to support S1929 or A2869. Call Senator Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and ask her to post the bill for a hearing.
Together, we could ensure that this bill becomes a law. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our children.