June 06, 2011
By Jay Gartman
Over the past two years I lost three dear friends — to politics. All decided to cap off their careers by running for their local school boards. And they won, never to be heard from again by families or friends. School board positions are thankless and tough jobs even during normal times. It’s especially hard now, due to budget caps, increased service requirements, angry politicians and citizens, and revenue threats from charter schools and vouchers.
As an ACLU-NJ Board member, I’m especially concerned about vouchers. They’re funded by taxes and given to parents to help them finance their child’s private school education. Vouchers siphon money from public school budgets, threatening the latter’s ability to provide a quality education. And they’re frequently used for religious schools, a clear abridgement of the separation of church and state clauses in the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.
One friend, Dr. Lawrence Feldman, vice-chairman of the 345,000-student Miami-Dade County school system, says his job, is especially tough now. His school district has lost $2 billion in revenue over the past 28 months. The reasons are plentiful, but a major cause is charter schools, which is draw operating funds from the public school budgets. “Most people don’t realize the magnitude of the issue, so lets put it this way,” says Dr. Feldman. “Dade County has 30 percent less students than the New York City system, but Dade has more charter schools than NYC. And to make this issue more Constitutionally complex, many charter schools operate within religious buildings, and religious institutions are opening up their own charter schools.”
Another friend, Bob Silver, was elected to the Lincoln County school board in North Carolina and he’s relieved — for the moment — that vouchers don’t exist in his county. But adjacent Mecklenburg County does offer vouchers and they’re supposedly distributed objectively to kids looking for “heightened educations (ie math, science or the arts), which may not be offered by their local school.
Finally there’s a friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, but is a board member of a nationally acclaimed Somerset County school system in New Jersey. She laments, “This not a good time for public schools because funding is not stable.” She’s very concerned about charter schools and a proposed bill in the NJ Legislature that would allow religious schools and private schools to convert to charter schools. “Where would the money come from to fund those new charter schools?” she asks. “Well, by law the students’ sending public school districts have to pay 90 percent of the per-pupil cost to the charter school.”
New Jersey voucher support is growing in Trenton and the future is scary. There are two companion bills making their way through the legislature, designed to divert more taxpayer funds into vouchers. Sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to entities contributing to low income children. Contact your legislators and let them know you are opposed to the bill. According to the Office of Legislative Services, this “Stealth Voucher Bill” will divert $35.7 million in taxes its first year, growing to $366.4 million by year five. And since many of the private schools benefiting from the vouchers will be religious, you don’t need a college degree to imagine how these numbers will hurt our education systems and the sanctity of our Constitution.