Education reform in New Jersey

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The New Jersey Parental Rights Program is good education reform, except for two near deal-killers for private religious schools.

Education reform – an introduction

Education reform is an appropriately current topic in New Jersey. To be sure, it is a multi-faceted problem, and needs a multi-faceted solution. Legislation is one solution among many.

I am running for the Assembly seat in the 24th district of New Jersey. I want to discuss this issue in specific terms and not just platitudes that may sound good to the ear but are essentially meaningless. Here is my position on Assembly Bill 4033 as sponsored by New Jersey Assemblymen Bucco, Carroll, and De Croce. While this is a New Jersey matter, the details included could help other states considering a similar education reform measure.

My education reform position

RoseAnn Salanitri, Assembly candidate, running on education reform

RoseAnn Salanitri, candidate for the New Jersey Assembly. Photo: CNAV.

Assemblymen Anthony M. Bucco, Michael Patrick Carroll and Alex DeCroce sponsored Bill A4033, the New Jersey Parental Rights Program Act, or “The Program” for short. Assemblyman Dominick DiCicco co-sponsored.

These four Assemblymen deserve kudos for this bill. Their proposal is well thought out. But the Program has room for improvement in two areas.

Background

I founded a private Christian school. I understand what schools like this might legitimately object to. Any Program should consider these objections. Otherwise we could have a wonderful Program that enables students and their families to make educational choices but could leave them with very limited schools to choose from. Many private schools could choose not to take part in this Program.

Non-Discrimination clause

The Program has a Non-Discrimination clause. Non-Discrimination clauses are a good thing. But this particular one will prompt many religious schools not to take part. Section 5(a) reads:

To be eligible to participate in the program, a nonpublic school shall be located in the State, and the chief school administrator of the nonpublic school shall demonstrate to the department that the nonpublic school:

  1. complies with all applicable health and safety codes;
  2. does not discriminate in admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or religion…

Health and safety codes already exist for the operation of a nonpublic school. So this criterion is a bit redundant. Item 2 creates a problem for religion-based nonpublic schools. Many such schools have policies about the religious beliefs of the student and/or parents. Forcing those schools to violate their policies would encourage them not to take part in the Program. That will make a gap regarding private schools that parents may wish to consider.

Does the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (or the “Wall of Separation” that Thomas Jefferson wrote about in his Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association) let any State send public money to schools that do discriminate on the basis of religion?

Yes. In Everson v. Board of Education, 1947, a New Jersey law authorized payment by local school boards of the costs of transportation to and from schools – including private schools, including religious private schools. The case challenged the sending of public monies to religious private schools. Everson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 10, 1947, the Court, through Justice Hugo Black, ruled 5-4 that the state bill was constitutionally permissible. The law offered reimbursements to all students regardless of religion, reimbursements that parents, not any religious institutions, received. Perhaps as important as the outcome of the case, was the interpretation that the entire Court gave the Establishment Clause. It reflected a broad interpretation of the Clause that would guide the Court’s decisions for decades to come.

Academic and financial accountability

Sections 5 (b-c) and 7 deal with qualifying private schools. Again, these paragraphs would most likely discourage private religious schools from participating in the Program. They create obstacles and bureaucratic regulations that most private schools would shy away from.

It is entirely reasonable to set standards to assure the state that the private institutions that receive state funds are fiscally and academically sound. But one can do this effectively without state intrusion. Protestant Christian schools have two accreditation organizations: Association of Christian Schools (for Reformed church schools), and Association of Christian Schools International (for Evangelical Christian schools worldwide). Both organizations set high standards for accreditation and could serve as a sort of liaison between the state and the private school without interference from state bureaucracies. To be more specific: any accredited school already gives its accrediting agency information on class size and student and parental satisfaction. Any researcher studying the effectiveness of the Program can get that information from the agencies (unless the school is not accredited).

Regarding fiscal responsibility, the solution is much simpler. Private schools that file as 501(c)(3) organizations already endure scrutiny from auditors and must meet strict IRS requirements. There is no need to impose additional accounting requirements on these schools. Many private schools already contract with private organizations, such as FACTS, that assess the financial distribution of scholarship or “opportunity” funds. This can be elaborated upon to satisfy state requirements but once again, we need not re-invent the wheel – which may result in a substandard product in the long run.

Opportunity Funds

Our state legislators have also proposed an Opportunity Scholarship Fund that would let businesses give to a scholarship fund for students in under-performing schools. Again, this is redundant and would result in a system that is actually worse than the one that already exists. According to IRS rules, any public school and any non-profit school may accept donations—tax-deductible donations. Creating a state fund will limit the ability of businesses to give to the school of their choice. With that limit comes loss of accountability. The Opportunity Scholarship Fund, as well-intentioned as it is, actually limits choice. That is the opposite of what education reform should achieve.

Furthermore, the term “Scholarship” is a misnomer. This fund should distribute its moneys, not according to academic achievement but according to need. A better approach would be to encourage businesses to take advantage of this deduction by sweetening the pot and offering a tax deduction that exceeds the donation by 20%. For instance, a business (or person) who contributes $1,000 to a school of their choice would receive a $1,200 tax deduction.

Conclusion

All in all, the proposed New Jersey Parental Rights Program is a good start. The above improvements would make it one of the best educational reform proposals yet written.

Another version of this article appears here.

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