Despite a massive deficit brought on by the COVID pandemic, New Jersey’s recently passed budget handed several funding victories to private schools, especially increases for spending on security and special education.
The budget process was delayed for months as a result of the virus, which both slashed revenue and disrupted normal government functions. There was much talk of a massively scaled-down spending plan to deal with the over-$5 billion revenue gap. Ultimately, Governor Phil Murphy and the legislature opted for a huge borrowing package and a “millionaires” tax to continue funding for most items the state has financed in past years.
Amid challenges, steady advocacy by Orthodox groups, the Catholic Conference, the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools and others in the private-school community secured funding for key needs of students outside the public-education system.
In light of the steep hill the state had faced, advocates for the Orthodox community were pleased with the results.
“Given the challenges the state faced, we are exceptionally grateful for the gains we made and that other programs escaped any cuts,” said Rabbi Avi Schnall, Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey director.
Dan Mitzner, Director of State Political Affairs for the Orthodox Union’s Teach Coalition, sounded a similar note.
“That we saw any increases this year is a tremendous victory, and Gov. Murphy and our allies in the legislature deserve a lot of credit for making funding for non-public schools a priority,” he said.
After a year that saw several violent attacks on Jews in the New York metropolitan area, security spending for nonprofit institutions was deemed a high priority. An appropriation for nonpublic-school security was introduced several years ago by Assemblyman Gary Schear (D-Passaic), who has been a consistent champion of equitable funding on many fronts. As Jewish schools have been a major beneficiary of the funding, rising anti-Semitism has moved legislators to endorse steady increases since the program’s introduction, and this year the per-pupil amount was raised from $150 to $175.
“Our first and foremost priority was security funding,” said Mr. Mitzner. “Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the scourge of anti-Semitism has not gone anywhere and the need for vigilance remains. That we were able to secure this increase was a tremendous accomplishment.”
The other most notable increase was in the reimbursement available for special-education services – covering supplementary instruction for English language and mathematics – which was increased from $31 million to $33 million. The move is especially significant as it is the first adjustment to the funding in over seven years. In that time, the number of children requiring extra help has grown exponentially while funding levels remained stagnant, placing increasing limitations on the services that could be provided to needy students.
Rabbi Schnall, who has been heavily involved in efforts to secure the increase for several years, said that while the pandemic left less cash to draw from, it also highlighted the need to offer more support to struggling students.
“In terms of education, COVID hurt these students the most and highlighted the need to do more for vulnerable populations,” he said.
While grateful for the increase, Rabbi Schnall said that the funding level remains outdated considering the present-day expenses of paying for tutoring and other supplementary educational.
“In such a year, we are very happy that we got this much, but really the whole rubric needs to be revisited and there is a lot more work that still needs to be done,” he said.
Another modest increase was in nursing services, which was raised from $97 to $102 per pupil. While most funding for schools to cope with the expenses of safe operation amid the pandemic comes from the federal CARES Act, the nursing increase could serve as an additional means of defraying the administration of some health protocols to school nurses.
Other key items the nonpublic schools receive funding for, such as textbooks and transportation, remained at steady funding levels.
Typically passed in the early summer, the deferred budget was unveiled in recent weeks and signed into law this Tuesday. Many, especially Republicans in the legislature, criticized the plan’s reliance on deficit spending, saying that taxpayers would spend years repaying debts and that such an approach threatens the state’s financial stability.
One issue left unresolved by the budget was how transportation for Lakewood’s students would be financed. Having long outpaced the standard allotment, for the last five years busing has been managed by a private consortium known as the LSTA. It was initially funded through a pilot program and since then by grants from the state Department of Education.
“It’s still an open question as to exactly how, but we feel that the governor understands the need to continue to finance the LSTA and we are cautiously optimistic that we will find a way to do it,” said Rabbi Schnall.