N.J. District Proposes Vouchers for High Schoolers
A small New Jersey school district wants to provide vouchers to its high-school-age students to attend any public or private school, including religious schools.
The Lincoln Park district in northern New Jersey does not have its own high school and currently contracts with a nearby district to educate its 325 high-school-age students.
But in part because of tensions in its relationship with Boonton High School, in the nearby Boonton district, the Lincoln Park school board voted 7-2 late last month to begin phasing in a voucher program with next year's freshman class.
The board was scheduled to take a final vote on the plan early this week.
"There are board members who think it will promote a healthy sense of competition and will even help improve Boonton High," said Jack Farr, the superintendent of the Lincoln Park district, which serves 950 students in grades K-8.
While the voucher plan was expected to pass on its second vote, the board is bracing for legal challenges from several possible quarters.
Civil liberties groups have threatened to sue because they believe the inclusion of religious schools in the voucher plan would violate state and federal constitutional prohibitions against government aid to religion.
Also, the board's own lawyers suggest that opponents might argue that the district is overstepping its authority under state law by adopting the voucher plan.
The Boonton school board might argue that its "sending-receiving relationship" with the Lincoln Park district makes Boonton High the only school that can receive public funds for the education of high school students from Lincoln, David B. Rand, a lawyer for the Lincoln Park board, said in an advisory opinion.
But Mr. Rand suggested that the board has the right to enact the voucher program based on its "discretionary authority" under state law. He also advised that including religious schools in the plan would not violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.
He cited last year's ruling by a state judge in Ohio that upheld a pilot voucher program in Cleveland that includes religious schools. The judge there relied on a recent line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that voucher proponents say have opened the door for including religious schools in programs in which parents make the choice of where to send their children. ("Ohio Court Clears Cleveland's Voucher Pilot," Aug. 7, 1996.)
In New Jersey, numerous elementary school districts have contracts to send children to high schools in other districts.
Mr. Farr said students from Lincoln Park make up more than 60 percent of the enrollment at Boonton High, yet Lincoln Park has only one seat on the nine-member Boonton school board.
Some parents and school officials in Lincoln Park are said to be dissatisfied with the education standards at Boonton High. And the Lincoln Park district filed two lawsuits recently in state courts over such issues as the selection of the Boonton High principal and the exclusion of its representative from some Boonton board meetings.
The voucher plan would start next fall with the freshman class and increase by one class at a time, thus giving Boonton time to cope with the expected exodus of Lincoln Park students, Mr. Farr said.
The vouchers would be open to parents of eligible students regardless of family income. The value of the voucher would depend on the amount of tuition Lincoln Park must pay Boonton. This year, that figure is $9,200.
Threat of Suit
The vouchers could be used at any public or private high school, as long as the school was in compliance with civil rights laws and did not discriminate against any students.
Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said "a lawsuit is certain" if religious institutions are included in the voucher plan.
"Religious schools are ministries of the churches that sponsor them," Mr. Lynn of the Washington-based advocacy group said in a letter to the Lincoln Park board. "Thus taxpayers must not be required to support such schools."
Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the state education department, said officials could not comment because of the possibility that Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz might have to rule on the matter.