vouchers

Earlier this month, St. Paul Elementary School in Hingham, Massachusetts found itself at the center of controversy when it rescinded admission of an 8-year old boy because his parents were lesbians.

Sean O’Malley, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, insisted that Catholic schools “welcome people from all walks of life,” and that “We have never had categories of people who were excluded.” Archdiocese officials apologized to the parents and offered to find another Catholic school for their son. At the same time, O’Malley defended the school’s decision, and offered his “full confidence and support” to the priest who made it.

What does all this have to do with New Jersey? Two weeks ago, the Senate Economic Growth Committee unanimously approved S1872, the “Opportunity Scholarship Act”, which would provide scholarships to students in underperforming districts to attend private schools or out-of-disrict public schools. Businesses would receive matching tax credits from the state in exchange for providing the scholarships. To compensate for the lost tax revenue, the state would cut aid to public districts based on the number of students who take scholarships. Senator Ray Lesniak, a longtime supporter of school vouchers, expects the legislature to pass the bill before July 1 so that it can take effect before the beginning of the next school year.

The stories from Massachusetts and Colorado raise some questions about the implementation of a private school vouchers. If we allow New Jersey private schools to accept what is essentially taxpayer money, will schools—be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or secular—that accept vouchers be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation? on the basis of religion? on the basis of race?

The answer to all of these questions, at least under Lesniak-Kean, is yes, except when it comes to voucher-eligible students enrolled in a public school.

“Eligible school” means an in-district or out-of-district public…or nonpublic school…that:

(1) is open to all students who are eligible to participate in the pilot program and does not discriminate in its admission policies or practices for scholarship applicants enrolled in a public school on the date of the scholarship application on the basis of intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, status as a handicapped person, proficiency in the English language, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a school district.

New Jersey has a robust non-discrimination law which includes, among other things, religion, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the scope of the non-discrimination provision in the voucher bill is very limited, as it does not apply to non-voucher applicants or voucher applicants currently enrolled in a private school. A K-8 Catholic school might be required to admit a voucher-eligible eighth grade student who is an atheist or the child of lesbian parents (or is not a three-sport star athlete or has less than a B average). The next year, Catholic high schools would be able to exclude that same student.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether anti-discrimination protections would extend to students

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