It is a matter of basic fairness that children with special needs are given the opportunity for an education that meets their needs in ways that offer them the best education available. New Jersey has a Special Education law that permits school districts to assign special-needs students to an out-of-district school if necessary, even if the school is nonpublic. This range of options for special-needs children takes into consideration the unique needs and educational settings required for each student.
In fact, the State of New Jersey understands and embraces this principle of educational fairness with a Special Education law that requires that students with unique needs have those needs met to the best of the abilities of the educational system available in New Jersey. If a school district is unable to accommodate them, then the option of an accredited sectarian non-public school must be on the table.
However, the current law bars the local school district from making such an arrangement with sectarian schools. I believe this is wrong, that it unfairly limits the options available to meet the wide range of needs of special education students. That is why I am sponsoring legislation to eliminate this policy and permit a local district and the parents of a special needs child to agree to have that child educated in a religious school on the same terms as currently allowed for any other nonpublic school. This policy change was proposed three years ago by the Study Commission on Nonpublic Schools.
My bill is carefully crafted to ensure it operates within appropriate constitutional boundaries. The legislation serves the fundamental right of parents to control the educational decisions for their children.
The legislation furthers the general, religion neutral policy of New Jersey to permit student placements in sectarian schools on the same terms as placements in other nonpublic schools, consistent with the neutrality principles Moreover, any public funds that flow to the sectarian school do so based upon the private independent choice of parents.
By its terms, the legislation restricts any state payments to religious schools to reimbursements for secular, nonsectarian education services. This factor clearly ensures that the state will not get anywhere near funding sectarian education and services.
The expanded and equal access of special education services is consistent with many other programs the State of New Jersey currently operates—which provide appropriate aid to the state’s thousands of students attending nonpublic and religious schools. In the State of New Jersey, one out of eight K-12 students are enrolled in nonpublic schools, yielding a savings to the state of nearly $3 billion annually. Within the K-12 sector, students who require special education services deserve our consideration and support to provide them with educational opportunity in an environment that best suits their needs.
New Jersey has commendably realized that some students must be afforded their opportunities outside the public school system. Students whose needs will be best served in sectarian schools deserve the same opportunity and fair treatment.
For many children, a future of success lies in the education they receive. We can improve and enhance their opportunities by allowing sectarian schools to serve their educational needs.
By Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg