Bill Can Help Keep Schools Afloat

October 5, 2011

 Across New Jersey, where parents in New Jersey’s poorest cities have been unhappy with the local public schools, nearby private schools, particularly Catholic schools, have long provided an alternative for those few who can afford them or get scholarships for their kids.

Yet as the Catholic Church has gone through major changes, chiefly parish mergers, the number of seats available in Catholic schools has shrunk because some schools have had to close, their attendance having grown to small, their operating costs having become too much of a burden for local parishes.

A just-passed bill in Trenton might, however, offer a means for keeping a few struggling private schools open — as charter schools. That’s a good thing, because for kids in our state’s poorest cities, such as Camden, which have chronically failing schools despite billions of dollars in extra state aid, well-run private schools and charter schools can offer a good education — the ticket out of lifelong poverty.

Bill A2806, approved 25-13 in the state Senate last week, would permit the conversion of nonpublic schools in failing school districts into charter schools. Charters are specialized public schools run independently of the local school board and administration and with certain established principles and curriculum goals guiding instruction.

We hope that Gov. Chris Christie, who champions charter schools as one way to give kids in failing districts better options, signs this bill.

No, it’s unlikely that masses of Catholic schools across the state would end up converting into charter schools just because this bill has passed. After all, the legislation essentially means that it’s a building and a staff that are getting a new life, but all traces of religion in the curriculum in the building (crosses, images of the Virgin Mary, etc.) and even in the school name have to go. The schools become almost entirely new institutions.

But where the church is without options because of costs, and where there remain children in need and parents who want to save their school, this presents a way to keep the school open.

Under this legislation, a private school converting into a charter would have to get rid of all religious instruction from the curriculum, all religious paraphernalia from the building and its religious name. But the current staff and students could stay as the school converts into a charter.

This bill covers only a limited number of private schools, many of which probably wouldn’t want to give up religious education. But if it allows even a handful of successful private schools that would otherwise shut down to stay open as charters, then it is children who benefit.