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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

School choice is a parent's right
Aref Assaf, PhD

June 1, 2011
First published on the Star Ledger's NJ Voices on June 2, 201. Guest Columnsit in the print edition of the Daily Record, June 13, 2011

“It is only the tyranny of the status quo that leads us to take it for granted that in schooling, government monopoly is the best way for the government to achieve its objective.”
The School Choice Advocate (January 2004)


This is a topic of great interest to our NJ Muslim community educators and parents. They just don’t know it yet. It’s about school choice. It is a topic that interfaith groups especially need to consider. Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-Boonton) recently introduced The NJ Parental Program Act. If you are into legalese, then you will enjoy reading the bill. If you are not, then know this: As a parent who pays property taxes to fund public education, I should have the right to send my children to any school in the system or outside of it. I know what’s best for my children.

“School choice”, “school vouchers” and “parental choice” are acronyms for an idea devised over 56 years ago by the late Noble laureate Milton Friedman who argued then that government monopoly of public schools has failed to produce the expected educational services to our children. Milton Friedman came up with the idea of a universal voucher system, where the money follows the child to the school chosen by the parents. Concisely put, Freidman argues almost that by separating government financing of education from government administration of schools, parents at all income levels would have the freedom to choose the schools their children attend. This is also a hot topic where political affiliations stand clear of any reasonable comprise any time soon. For some, this choice is racism in disguise, of selfish priorities at the expense of societal benefits. Opponents believe that if parents are given the chance to place their children in the schools they feel most fit for their expectations, then the public school system will be devoid of smart and gifted students, and more importantly, school funding will be broken. They further argue that increasing educational choice is likely to increase separation of students by race, social class, and cultural background. Research conducted by James Coleman found that segregation by race and economic class were more severe in public schools than in private schools, even though the public school system enrolls a higher total percentage of minority students.

Supporters, on the other hand, argue that education of their children is a service they pay for but one which they cannot effectively evaluate based on the performance of the school. Parents should be able to send their children to the school of their choice and without being burdened by additional tuition fees. Pro school choice pundits argue that greater choice in public education is likely, by itself, to increase either the variety of programs available to students or the overall performance of schools. And this is what Harvard economist Caroline Minter-Hoxby has shown to be false in her 1997 paper titled "Evidence on School Choice: What We Learn from the Traditional Forms of School Choice in the U.S." In that work, Minter-Hoxby demonstrates that increased competition between schools and increased parental choice of schools and school districts does indeed have some positive effect on academic achievement, but the improvements are modest and little innovation and variety can be traced to choice programs which limit themselves to the public sector. Finally, a landmark 2007 study on school choice by Dr. Herbert J. Walberg concludes that the consensus of the high-quality international research overwhelmingly "favors competition and parental choice in education over the monopoly systems that dominate the United States and many other industrialized countries."

American Muslims are natural proponents for school choice. Yet it is a topic that is rarely discussed. Some would argue that civil and religious rights violations have overshadowed other important considerations. Educating their children in Muslim school is a dream for many due to the shortage of such schools and more importantly because of the additional tuition they must pay. However, the community has been absent from the political debate over school choice. This disconnect between core positions and political engagement is unsustainable, ill conceived and must be reversed.

American Muslims are not part of the grassroots movement and their concerns are not on the table. If we as taxpaying parents choose to send our kids to private schools (Muslim schools), we should not be forced to pay for their education twice: one in property taxes and the other in school tuition. Parents should be able to receive a scholarship equal to the taxes paid when they take their children into another school outside of their district.

Here is an opportunity for American Muslims to ensure that their children receive a proper education in a school of their choosing. Just imagine if we succeeded, the financial burden on Muslim parents, many of whom cannot afford the close to $1000 a month in tuition per child, will no longer exist. There are about twenty State-accredited Muslim schools in New Jersey excluding the weekend schools which are not accredited (See list below).

As the NJ Muslim population soon reaches close to the one million mark, we must begin to advocate our preferences relating to the education of our children. Our choices will need to migrate to the public sphere. Our leaders, community, religious, intellectual and academic, should endeavor to hold a conference outlining the pros and cons of school choice.

Politicians pay careful attention to grassroots positions if such positions mean a political windfall for them. Thus far, we do not exist on the political radar of policy makers in whom we have placed our trust to do what's right for us and our children. One such position is to hedge our political and financial support for political candidates based on their position on school choice.

Do not be surprised when you find out that most Democratic politicians are not in favor school choice for reasons I will allude to in a future column. In case you do not know, our current Republican Governor, Chris Christie, is an avid proponent of the school choice idea making him a natural enemy for the powerful teacher unions. He is moving in the right direction, I believe. He has signed The Interdistrict Public School Choice Act of 2010 which allows students and their families by providing students with the option of attending a public school outside their district of residence without cost to their parents. Noticeably, only 74 schools have so far opted to join this program. The law, to take effect this coming school year, however, expressly excludes private schools from participating in this program. Assemblyman Bucco's bill attempts to remove the restriction.


I am an advocate for public education, lest anyone have doubts. I think it is the most important duty of our government. My five children have all gone through the public school system. By any measure they have received an excellent education. It is no secret however that the US lags behind many less advanced nation in educational performance. For me I know that if I were given the choice and a Muslim school existed nearby, I would have opted for the Muslim school. This is my personal choice to ensure my children receive sufficient spiritual and academic instruction. Lacking such an option placed additional burdens on the family. While I support the mandate for public education, I still believe public schools are not the only vehicles to deliver on such a mandate. Freedom of choice is the heart of democracy.

 

Aref Assaf, PhD

American Arab Forum

P.S: Three schools , run by IEF, operate in Northern New Jersey while one school operates in Central New Jersey. The first Islamic school in NJ, Al-Ghastly School, was founded in 1984. I am in the process of concluding a paper on the status of Muslim schools in New Jersey and will report my findings soon.
I am in the process of drafting a speech for presentation at a conference on school choice and would love to hear from you. A shorter column is planned as well. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, I welcome your careful comments. Please forward this column to your links in education, school boards and mosque funding organs.

Related:
What Does a Voucher Buy?
A Closer Look at the Cost of Private Schools

NJ School Report Card

New Jersey Islamic High Schools

Town
High School
# Students
Grades
East Orange Islamic Day School
201 PK-12
Monmouth Junction Noor-ul-iman School
411 PK-12
Old Bridge Baytul-Iman Academy
90 PK-12
Paterson Al-huda School
176 PK-12
South River Darul Arqam School
(School with Special Program Emphasis)
219 PK-10
Teaneck Ief-al-ghazaly High School
236 7-12
Union City Miftaahul Uloom School
184 PK-12

New Jersey Islamic Elementary Schools

Town
Elementary School
# Students
Grades
Asbury Park Islamic Day School
(School with Special Program Emphasis)
40 PK-7
East Orange Islamic Day School
201 PK-12
Jersey City Al Ghazaly School
195 PK-6
Monmouth Junction Noor-ul-iman School
411 PK-12
Newark Clara Muhammad School
(Alternative School)
9 K-8
Old Bridge Baytul-Iman Academy
90 PK-12
Paterson Al-huda School
176 PK-12
Piscataway An Noor Academy
196 PK-9
Prospect Park Al-hikmah Elementary School
(School with Special Program Emphasis)
340 PK-6
South River Darul Arqam School
(School with Special Program Emphasis)
219 PK-10
Trenton Islamic School of Trenton
47 PK-7
Union City Miftaahul Uloom School
184 PK-12
Union City Rising Star Academy
(School with Special Program Emphasis)
171 PK-9


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