I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Can NJ Afford To Continue Subsidizing Private Schools?

Regardless of what happens next with Covid-19, it's clear that the budgets of states like New Jersey are in for a very, very tough time over the next few years. Governors and legislatures are going to have to make some hard choices about what states can and cannot afford in the days ahead.

Given this reality, New Jersey has to ask itself: Can we afford to continue to give large sums of money to private K-12 schools?

"Wait," some of you are saying: "I thought New Jersey didn't have a school voucher program." You're correct, we don't -- but the state still gives a lot of money to private schools.

According to New Jersey law, nonpublic schools are eligible for all kinds of services that must be paid for by resident public school districts. In 2017-18, the payments to New Jersey's nonpublic schools for these services, excluding transportation, added up to more than $115 million. 

New Jersey is actually the nation's historical leader in subsidizing nonpublic schools. Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing is the landmark 1947 case that established the constitutionality of "non-instructional" support for private schools (notably, and like many other cases regarding public support for religious schools, the ruling in Everson was a split decision). Later, in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that these subsidies could be expanded to instructional items. 

Maybe you agree with the jurisprudence behind these decisions; maybe you don't. Regardless, the result has been a larger and larger share of New Jersey's school spending has gone toward supporting private schools.

Excluding transportation, nonpublic school support now takes up 0.4 percent of the total school spending in New Jersey. I can hear the rebuttal now: "That's a tiny amount!" Notice, however, the amount has been increasing over the past several years -- not only in absolute dollars, but as a proportion of the total. As the old joke says: a few hundred million here and there... pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

And we're not including transportation. I'm unaware of data that breaks down how transportation expenses are divided between public and nonpublic students, but common sense suggests the amount must be significant.

How do the expenses other than transportation break down?

You can visit the NJDOE's website for a description of each of these. Let me be the first to say that services for students with special needs or who are English language learners -- listed under Auxiliary and Handicapped Services -- are critically important.* The question, however, is whether these services are best provided under the direct supervision of a school district or through a nonpublic school, which is subject to much less strict oversight

As for other services: obviously, nurses, technology, security and textbooks are necessary for any school. But the state constitution calls for the "...maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools..." It does not require the state to provide private schools with the funds they need to operate. Why, then, is the state requiring districts to fund services that nonpublic schools could be paying for through tuition increases?

Again, I can hear the rebuttal: "You want to keep students in failing public schools!" No, I want all public schools to succeed -- but they can't do that without adequate funding. When you take funds that could be going toward constitutionally mandated "free public schools" and give them to private schools, you decrease the chances of those public schools meeting the needs of their students. In addition: many of the districts that send money to private schools would not be considered "failing" under any reasonable standard.

No one is saying parents can't send their kids to a private school if that's what they want. But in a time of looming fiscal crisis, policymakers have to think carefully about this state can afford. Public schools are open to everyone, do not require adherence to any particular religious dogma, and are required by law to adhere to federal guidelines for students with special needs. Private schools, in contrast, are only open to those students they wish to admit, and who agree to adhere to the tenets of that school's creed.

Every dollar that goes to nonpublic schools is a dollar that could be put back into public schools. Can we afford to keep giving those dollars away when students in constitutionally mandated public schools need them?

* There are private schools in New Jersey that are specifically set up to enroll students with special education needs. But tuition paid to these schools is reported separately from the figures above.