TRENTON - The sponsor of a proposal that would allow New Jersey public schools to charge for summer school said cash-strapped districts can't afford to keep classrooms open without the fee.
Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said half the 12 towns in densely populated Hudson County were likely to offer remedial and enrichment classes if they were permitted to charge parents.
Only one of the town's schools, at most, will be open this summer if the bill making its way through the Assembly isn't signed by July, he said.
The bill was released unanimously by the Assembly Education Committee on Monday.
It's now up to Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) to post the bill for a floor vote. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.
"It's absolutely necessary. It's not a thing I would advocate for - to have to pay for school," said Prieto. "It was the only way to at least have the programs open."
Gov. Christie's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for $820 million in cuts to school aid, which comes on top of $475 million in cuts to K-12 education in February that were blunted by ordering the schools to use their excess surpluses instead of state aid. The governor has had to cut more than $2 billion from this year's budget to keep it balanced.
The legislation allows schools to pass on the costs of summer classes to families that can afford it, but requires that instruction stay free in districts that can afford to offer it for students who are income-eligible for free school lunches.
The income threshold qualifying for free lunch is $22,050 for a family of four.
A sliding scale allows schools to bill for partial tuition, based on income.
Prieto called the bill an emergency and said it would be fast-tracked for approval before the end of the month.
He said he remained concerned that some families would not be able to afford the roughly $100 to $200 per student that summer school could cost, but said charities and service clubs might be willing to pitch in.
Assemblyman Joe Malone (R., Burlington), who voted for the bill, said the state's dire fiscal reality necessitated the legislation.
Other states also are grappling with how to maintain summer school programs with less money.
Districts across the country are cutting summer school to save money. The cuts started when the recession began and have worsened, affecting more children and more programs that help struggling students.
The Missouri House in April approved legislation reducing the number of summer school classes the state would pay for. And in Hawaii, state school officials last month approved an 18.75 percent hike in summer school fees - to $190 - beginning next year.