Christie calls for school vouchers at Orthodox Jewish gathering in Teaneck

Originally published in The Record & Herald News, October 7, 2013

By Kathleen Lynn

TEANECK — Governor Christie made a pitch Sunday for school vouchers — which he tried unsuccessfully to get through the Legislature — to an Orthodox Jewish group concerned about the cost of private religious schools.

Speaking at the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s second annual legislative breakfast in Teaneck, Christie didn’t specifically focus on religious education, but said the state has 200 failing schools — which he called “failure factories” — and argued that children in those districts deserve the chance for a better education.

More than 500 people turned out to hear Christie, who is running for reelection in November against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.

The Orthodox advocacy group is trying to get public aid for families struggling with the cost of religious schools. Affording a Jewish education is “the No. 1 kitchen-table issue in our community,” Josh Pruzansky, regional director of Orthodox Union Advocacy, said Sunday before introducing Christie at Congregation Keter Torah.

The group also honored state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineri Huttle, D-Englewood, for their support of a bill that would allow public funds to be used for part of the education of special-needs students in religious schools. The Orthodox advocacy group has also sought tax credits or other aid for families who pay tuition at religious schools. Pruzansky said in an interview last week that annual tuition at New Jersey Jewish day schools averages around $16,000 for elementary students and $20,000 for high school students.

Although Christie’s speech Sunday didn’t specifically mention religious education, he supports the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give vouchers to students in seven districts, including two — Passaic and Lakewood — with significant numbers of students who attend Jewish day schools. The voucher idea, however, hasn’t gone anywhere; Democrats refused to include $2 million in the state budget this year for a pilot voucher program. The proposal has been opposed by the N.J. Education Association, which says it would drain money from public schools, as well as advocates for the separation of church and state. Buono has also opposed it.

Christie criticized opponents of vouchers Sunday, and recalled how his own parents had moved from Newark to Livingston when he was a child to get access to better public schools.

“In every other area, we believe that competition creates excellence,” Christie said Sunday. “I would be happy to take as many dollars as possible from the failure factories, if we could take that money and put it into a place where those families have hope.”

Also Sunday, Christie was endorsed by River Edge Mayor Sandy Moscaritolo, the 18th Democratic mayor to back Christie’s reelection, according to the Christie campaign. Moscaritolo praised Christie for his work to reform to the state’s pension and health benefits systems, as well as enact a 2 percent cap on municipal property taxes.