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. 


StateAidGuy said...

I appreciate that you tried to grapple with two objections in this post and you did not make unresolvable jurisprudential and philosophical argument against private school subsidies.

A few points ... NJ CUT private school subsidies during the Great Recession by 15% (per student), which was more than it cut K-12 opex aid. So an increase from a year of deep cuts is not surprising and it doesn't foretell that an increasing percentage of NJ's education budget will go to private school subsidies.

See page 40.

The claim that private school subsidies are an increasing as a share of the budget depends on your timeframe. There were large increases in state+local education spending in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and if you extended your chart by two years, the percentage of money being spent on private school subsidies would fall. For instance, in 2019-20, state education spending was $15.5 billion and local was $15.9 billion. $120 million is only 0.39% of that amount.

You also have to grapple with the fact that the state subsidy may be a but-for factor for a family sending a student to private school. Of course there are elite non-religious private schools that cater to high-income families and can survive losing the subsidy, but there are many other private schools that don't cater to rich people and for whom this subsidy is important.

Even including the elite non-religious schools, NJ's average private school tuition is $13,377 per year, with religious private schools charging substantially less. If you subtract the state subsidy (which works out to $600 per student) for a school that might already only charge a few thousand dollars per student and the school tries to make that up with a higher tuition, it is significant enough to imagine that it would cause some parents to pull out of the school. If private school dropouts are enough for the private school to close, then the increase to the public school population, would be larger and include students whose families still could afford the higher tuition.

Since NJ's average state spending is over $11,000 per student all-in (it is $6500 pp in formula aid), it would only take a few thousand private school students to transfer for the state's savings to be negated.

Also, NJ's private school subsidies now include money for nursing and security. In an age of epidemic and in mass shootings, are you sure that you want those to be cut?

Duke said...

What you're suggesting, Jeff, is that we attempt to solve what is an impossible policy problem: determine the point where the marginal cost of subsidizing some number of students in private schools equals the marginal cost of retaining them in public schools.

I'll admit it's a somewhat amusing intellectual exercise... but it's impossible to determine in real life.

nonjo said...

I can't speak for all of the schools in each county, but a lot of the evaluation, classification, and provision of both Chapter 192 and 193 services are provided by educational services commissions and special services school districts (there are private players in this space as well). In those cases, staff members are paying into TPAF and are members of NJEA. It's not money that's handed over to the nonpublic school to use. They do benefit from some direct services (textbooks, technology), but the district sits in the middle of the service delivery, and they are often happy to let an ESC handle it for them.

StateAidGuy said...

You didn't answer a question in my original post.

Do you even want private schools to lose their security and nursing funding?

Do you feel any differently about this in the wake of 11 Catholic school closings that have already been announced for the Newark Archdiocese alone?

Why do you think New Jersye should cut funding for all private schools instead of its hundreds of millions in funding to wealthy school districts?

The school districts with Local Fair Shares over 150% of their (fully) Adequacy Budgets get $120 million in direct state aid, plus hundreds of millions more in TPAF, FICA, and post-retirement healthcare. Why not cut some of that state funding and let NJ's wealthiest pay more until the economy recovers?