TRENTON - High-performing private and parochial schools in failing districts, including Camden, could become taxpayer-funded charter schools under a bill that won final legislative approval Monday.
The Senate voted, 25-13, for the legislation, which Gov. Christie is expected to sign.
The proposal would let parochial schools, which have long struggled financially, avoid closure by eliminating all religious symbols and classes, and adopting a secular name. Existing faculty and staff would be given preference for jobs, and current students would avoid the charter-school lottery process.
Some parishes have leased or sold their former school buildings for use as charters. But that takes time, and enrollment preference is not given to the displaced students.
Supporters of the idea, who include Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Camden County Democratic leader George E. Norcross 3d, say the proposal provides another option for struggling schools and students stuck in failing districts.
But other Democrats criticized the measure on the Senate floor Monday.
School superintendents are not happy about the legislation, said Sen. Bob Smith of Ocean County.
Charter schools "reduce the amount of money that's available for public schools," Smith said.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) noted that the conversion option was limited to top-performing institutions.
"The key is being able to take advantage of that high-performing faculty," Lesniak said.
The Diocese of Camden and Catholic school operators have said it would not be easy to see their schools shed the religious beliefs and values that guide them.
"We are firmly in the middle," said Peter Feuerherd, spokesman for the diocese.
The positive side of the bill is that it increases educational choices for parents, Feuerherd said.
The downside is that it "encourages" Catholic schools to become charters, he said. "The religious mission of Catholic schools is what we stand for."
Feuerherd reiterated the church's preference for the controversial Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give poor children in failing districts the means to attend private or parochial schools or out-of-district public schools.
The scholarships, which would be provided by businesses in return for tax credits, could increase Catholic school enrollment. A proposal to establish a pilot program awaits action by the Assembly and Senate.
"That's the kind of education reform we are really pushing," Feuerherd said.