PATERSON, N.J. — The sign on the fence in front of Paterson Catholic Regional High School reads, "Your future is here," but that's no longer true for students scrambling to find new schools after the school closed its doors.
The Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese shut down the debt-burdened school Friday after 43 years of serving mostly low-income students from the struggling city. New Brunswick's last Catholic school is also closing this summer.
The losses are Exhibit A for advocates of a proposal to use state money for scholarships that would send students to private schools.
Pass the law, they say, and schools like Paterson Catholic may be able to remain open. They say that would be a relief for New Jersey's taxpayers, the ones who get stuck with the bill when students from closed Catholic schools enroll in public ones.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a sponsor of the bill, puts the cost of school closings to state taxpayers at $600 million year, but his estimate assumes every student from a closed school ends up in public school the next year.
Catholic schools across the country — especially those in inner-cities — have been in crisis over the last decade. Sister Dale McDonald, policy director at the National Catholic Education Association, said 1,603 Catholic schools nationwide have closed since 2000, shedding more than 500,000 students.
But she said the Catholic school enrollment is more stable in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Rhode Island, where public money is already being used for private schools.
The New Jersey proposal gained major support this year when Gov. Chris Christie took office. While there's not a sure path to passage, the bill has advanced through a state Senate committee and is attracting serious debate.
The bill would give corporations full tax credits for financing the scholarship fund. Low-income students in chronically failing schools could apply for scholarships and use them at public schools outside the district or at private schools.
High school students at those schools would get $9,000 per year and elementary students would get $6,000 — far less than the cost per student in most public schools and tuition in the state's elite private schools. Participating schools would have to accept the scholarships as full tuition.
Opponents argue that it's unfair to take money away from public schools and send it to private schools.
Advocates say the main benefit is giving children and parents more options — with the idea that the competition would force troubled public schools to improve if they want to keep their students.
But their second argument is that the program would be a money-saving investment for taxpayers.
In Maryland, where a bill similar to the one in New Jersey's failed in committee earlier this year, private school advocates say their institutions save taxpayers $1.5 billion a year There, too, Catholic schools are hurting. Thirteen of the 64 in the Baltimore Archdiocese are closing this month.
In Camden, N.J., one of the nation's poorest cities, the four Catholic elementary schools — and one in neighboring Pennsauken — were put partly under the control of a private foundation two years ago as a matter of life support.
The schools have a combined total of about 1,000 students and a combined budget of about $5 million — or around $5,000 per student per year.
The tuition is listed at about $3,500, but the average student pays just more than $1,000. Three-quarters of the cost of running the schools comes from churches and other donations.
The Camden school district spends more than $25,000 per student annually, including fixed costs that do not rise when additional students enroll. Like in other impoverished New Jersey districts, most of that cost is paid by the state.
But Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University associate professor and expert in school finance, says the scholarship money wouldn't be enough to keep the Catholic schools alive.
While the scholarships might cover tuition at many private schools, they fall short of the overall cost per pupil in most of them, especially those closest to New York City, where costs are higher.
Paterson Diocese schools superintendent John Erickson said it costs close to $6,000 to educate an elementary school student at the Catholic schools in his area — and $11,000 to $12,000 for a high school student.
"On average, they're going to be losing for each kid that they take," Baker said. "It's more likely to hurt them than save them."
Advocates of the scholarship bill hope it will be passed in time to take effect for the 2011-12 school year.
If that happens, there's one group who won't benefit: the rising seniors at the old Paterson Catholic.
One of them, 16-year-old Dayana Aguirre, didn't believe the school would really close until the final days of school.
Fareed Nealy, also 16, said he didn't know where he'd go to finish high school. He said most of his classmates were also in limbo, weighing other Catholic schools in the area and the city's public schools, which are under state control.
"Everybody's still figuring it out," he said.