There is an effort afoot in New Jersey to “charge” private schools a tuition-like fee to compensate local school districts for the children of faculty members at private, non-profit boarding schools that offer any of the grades 9-12 and for private colleges and universities. This effort is mis-guided and doomed to fail, as it should.
The New Jersey State Constitution clearly states in Section VIII, Article IV, paragraph 1 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. [emphasis added]
Yet State Senator Shirley K. Turner has proposed in Senate Bill S426 (Assembly Bill A3463)that private 9-12 schools and colleges/universities with students residing in tax-free school-owned housing attending public school be required to pay tuition-like fee, based on the total school district budget divided by the number of students enrolled in school district. For example, if a qualifying private school had ten students enrolled in the local school district, and that district had 4,000 students total enrolled and an annual budget of, say, $75M, the private school would be required to pay the district 1/400th of their annual budget, or $187,500.
Of course, some would try to argue that the first portion of the above section of the State Constitution empowers the Legislature to tax various entities to fund the operation of public schools in New Jersey, but there is no provision for a quid pro quo relationship between the payment of taxes and the education of a child in New Jersey, to do so would constitute a fee, AKA a tuition charge for what the State Constitution describes as a free education, making it not free.
The origins of this proposal are likely rooted in the byzantine funding rules and polices in the state which resemble driver trying to regain control of a car slipping on an icy road – every time an inequity in school funding is perceived by any group in the state, the politicians and judges all work together to over-compensate and create new, soon-to-be discovered inequities in school funding impacting another group. The latest case involves a state-wide, across the board, 5% budget cut (the state cut aid to all local districts in amounts intended to realize a 5% cut in the school budget). Obviously districts that receive greater amounts of state aid feel they were hit hardest, since they lost the greater dollar amount of state-aid, but the impact of the cuts should have been equally among all NJ school districts (5% smaller budget).
As the disparity in school district spending can be seen in this quote from a recent Bloomberg.com article:
In the 1970s, when the litigation over funding equity began, schools in poor cities spent only half of what the state’s wealthiest schools did on a per-pupil basis.
Now, Kaplen said, those schools spend an average of $2,200 more per student than the wealthiest districts. Asbury Park, she said, is spending almost $25,000 per student this year — about twice as much as one wealthy district, Somerset County’s Montgomery Township.
What New Jersey desperately needs is a vastly simpler, more equitable funding model for our public schools – I would propose that the state agree that it is the role of the state to fund each district no less than 25% of the state average per-student cost (the previous year’s total public school expenditures divided by the total number of students), and capped at some defined amount, say four or five thousand dollars per year. Any monies needed beyond that level would have to be applied for every few years, with a plan to ween the more needy districts off the supplemental state aid.