OSA: The False Dichotomy of Private and Public Schools

The Star-Ledger’s PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter decided to rate a statement uttered by Save Our Schools-NJ’s spokesperson, Julia Sass Rubin, who is lobbying hard against the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Ms. Rubin said"(The Opportunity Scholarship Act) would be funded directly from public school budgets. So it would absolutely take money out of the public school system to transfer to private and religious schools."

Politifact rates her statement “mostly true” because, while there’s actually no direct link between public school budgets and the proposed bill, state taxpayers still have to compensate for tax credits given to corporations who sponsor scholarships for poor kids stuck in failing schools. But both Ms. Rubin and the Ledger miss an important point, one that seems to confound those who regard public school funding as some sort of pristine enterprise in which the pond scum coating private money never taints the public flow of holy water into school balance sheets.

In fact, private money is a big part of public education, at least in New Jersey, and has been for many years. Maybe it’s a well-kept secret (although both Ms. Rubin and the Star-Ledger should know better) so let’s look more closely at how our large urban districts use private money and "transfer it to private and religious schools" in funding preschool programs.

I chose three districts: Paterson, Newark, and Trenton. They’re all Abbott districts, so they must provide 3-5 year-olds with early childhood education. It’s not cheap, of course. For the school year 2011-2012 Paterson appropriated $47.9 million, Newark spent $87.9 million, and Trenton appropriated $26.8 million. So where does that public money go?

If you’re a Paterson resident you can choose among 30 private programs, including Calvary Baptist Preschool, Dorothy’s Little Tots, and St. Joseph’s Child Care. If you’re a Newark resident you can choose among 40 preschools, including Kiddie Korner Learning Center, Full Gospel Christian Academy, and Holiness Pentecostal Church of Christ Christian. If you’re a Trenton resident you can choose among 26 private providers and 10 in-district preschools, including Noah’s Ark Preschool, Trinity Cathedral Academy, and True Servant Preschool Academy. In all cases, parents choose the program and the district pays tuition directly to the private and religious preschools.

All providers, public and private, are vetted by the district and the State, and all must conform to mandated curricula. This marriage works well for all concerned and no one seems bothered by the wedding of private institutions and public school districts.

In fact, private money is infused into public school budgets in all sorts of ways. For example, schools that are In Need of Improvement under NCLB are required to provide after-school tutoring. Most districts contract those services out to private companies. Districts regularly sign contracts with private companies to provide speech and occupational therapists, nurses, instructional aides, even janitors. All district pay private legal firms to represent them. They hire private engineers and contractors for building construction; some of those costs are borne by local taxpayers and some by the State.

Reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. But Ms. Rubin's point of contention -- that there's something deviant or unprecedented about using public money for private and religious schools -- is either ignorant or deliberately misleading.