No one on any point of the political spectrum disagrees with the contention that New Jersey's public education system is in trouble. Once the model to which other states would aspire, today our public schools are severely underfunded and the schools’ dependence on an unfair property tax revenue stream exacerbates the situation. The recent cuts imposed by the Christie administration have compounded the problem by taking an additional one billion dollars from the education of our children. So why would the New Jersey legislature consider a bill that takes another $360 million from public schools without improving education? And is unconstitutional as well?
Yet, that is exactly what is happening in the Garden State. There is a bill in the legislative pipeline, S1872, with the misnomer of the “Opportunity Scholarship Act”, which would be more accurately titled the “Aid to Religious Schools Act.”
If passed, the bill will take much-needed funds from public schools and provide parents with vouchers that can be used to pay for private schools. Because over 80% of the New Jersey schools in this category are religious schools, this will result in unconstitutional funding of religious institutions. But that's just the tip of the iceberg of the problems with S1872.
The bill would allow private corporations to receive tax credits in order to fund the program. This is a roundabout way of avoiding direct government payout to religious institutions, but every dollar of tax credit is another dollar taken from New Jersey taxpayers. And do we really want private corporations influencing our children's curricula?
Despite its name as a “Scholarship Act”, the primary purpose of the bill is to provide taxpayer dollars to religious schools. This is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That clause mandates the separation of government activities from those of religious institutions. Both government and religion benefit from this wall of separation. Not only should taxpayers not be forced to support religious institutions, but those institutions should not be subject to many of the legal constraints that come with government funding if those constraints conflict with religious tenets. Public schools are required to hire teachers regardless of their religion (or atheism, for that matter). Government funding would require Catholic schools to do the same, for example.
The authors of the bill anticipate that there may not be enough money in the bill to accommodate everyone who would like to participate. So the bill includes a lottery system for that contingency. If one accepts the false argument that voucher schools would be of better quality than public schools, this scheme would be in opposition to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education which declared that “separate but equal” is unconstitutional.
If S1872 is enacted into law, it is certain to face challenges to its constitutionality. This would lead to a long and protracted series of trials up to and including the Supreme Court. New Jersey can ill afford the legal expense to defend this foolish bill when in today’s economy every dollar of taxpayer money should be utilized for value-added services.
Besides the illegal government funding of religion, there are other serious problems with the bill. Unlike public schools, voucher schools will not be required to provide a full range of educational services to severely handicapped children. Because the law specifies that private schools must accept the voucher as the full amount of tuition, and because kids with special needs are more expensive to accommodate, there is a disincentive for those schools to accept their enrollment. This is yet another case of “separate but unequal.”
Under the proposed law, if a child is expelled from a voucher school for any reason, the public school must accept that student even though the voucher school retains the remaining “scholarship” dollars. Also, some of the problems with public education are due to uninterested or unmotivated parents. These are the parents who typically would not make the effort to secure vouchers for their children’s education in the first place. These two factors compound the added burden on the already financially strained public schools.
The proposed program would be a five-year pilot with oversight by an “Opportunity Scholarship Board” whose members would be appointed by politicians. The board would be required to commission a study on the effectiveness of the pilot program and would be allowed to raise private funds (i.e. from special interest groups) to pay for that study. Maybe the fox guarding the hen house is de rigueur in New Jersey.
For many families, religious education is an important aspect of a child’s upbringing. There are ample opportunities for this – including after-school or weekend programs – all run by and funded by the religious institutions that can provide this teaching without government intervention.
Our Founding Fathers recognized the uniqueness of America by codifying the separation of government and religion in our Constitution. Not only does the New Jersey Constitution reiterate this tenet, but when it comes to education, it states: “The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.” The emphasis on “free”, “public”, and “all” are mine. Where we fall short today is in the words “thorough” and “efficient”. S1872 does nothing to advance the cause of better education for our kids. Neither does our Governor’s war on teachers. The voucher bill should be defeated, and our legislators’ energies and taxpayer’s funds would be better directed to improving public education to make New Jersey stronger and more competitive in the years to come.