Tax credits for private school tuition plan scrapped

June 17, 2024

Lawmakers introduced the “New Jersey Student Support Act” in early April. Their goal was to allow students to attend private schools at public expense.

Last week, after what they said was overwhelming opposition from stakeholders, sponsors pulled their bill. It never came up for a vote in committee.

The bill would have directed New Jersey to spend $37.5 million in tax credits per year for scholarships, which critics said were school vouchers, a tool used across the country to divert money from public schools and privatize education…

The bill would have established a program in the Department of Treasury to provide tax credits to taxpayers contributing to an organization that awards scholarships to nonpublic school students. Residents would have been able to use this money to pay for their children to attend private school.

This is money that would otherwise be directed to state programs and services, including K-12 public schools, health care and property tax relief. Families with a household income that does not exceed 2.6 times the federal income guidelines for reduced price lunch would have been eligible.

Opponents said that even though the word “voucher” isn’t used in the bill, the program is a private school voucher program. Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said there are three types of vouchers: direct vouchers, savings accounts and tax credits. Tax credits, as proposed in the New Jersey bill, is the most common voucher form in the country, she said.

“There’s no difference. It’s just a mechanism difference in terms of how you set up the pay structure. You’re taking public dollars and you’re directing them to private and religious education, which is what a voucher is,” Rubin said…

Borst and other advocates in New Jersey said they view the bill as an attack on public schools and a push towards privatizing education.

“Once you open the door, policy wise, to vouchers in the state they tend to expand dramatically going forward and they become a substantial tax on the state budget and on the public school system. We see this in state after state,” Rubin said.

In Arizona, a school voucher program started with $57 million in 2012 and grew to $218 million by 2022. After the state gave families roughly $7,000 a year to spend on private schools, some private schools began raising their tuition by thousands of dollars, according to The Hechinger Report.

The open letter urged lawmakers to look to other states as a warning of what could happen if New Jersey opened the door to school vouchers.

“They don’t work, they become exorbitantly expensive, they hurt public schools and they lead to discrimination. The real question is: Why would you promote this bill?” Rubin said…

Most of the bill’s sponsors were Democrats, who are known nationally as being supportive of public schools. Rubin, whose research interests include education policy, said while this was initially surprising, it makes sense in the context of how the Legislature works. She said New Jersey politics are largely transactional and driven by a political machine.

Ultimately, she said the criticism likely became too overwhelming for lawmakers to continue supporting the bill. In addition to public school advocates, opponents also included supporters of immigrant justice, LGBTQ+ people, fair housing and protecting the environment.

Still, lawmakers and advocates said this might not be the end of the school-choice discussion in New Jersey. Swain and Gopal both expressed interest in continuing the conversation without a bill on the table.

NJ Spotlight News, June 17, 2024

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