Voucher bill clears committee

An overflow crowd Thursday made their feelings known for and against  the Opportunity Scholarship Act that  would provide school-choice tax credits for low-income students as it was released out of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

The committee session was relocated from the smaller Room 9 to larger accommodations in Room 16 of the Statehouse Annex. Attesting to the interest in the controversial legislation, more than 100 people crowded into the chamber or lined up outside in the hallway, and more than 50 people testified either in person or by written statement.

The hearing, which started more than a half hour late and lasted more than five hours, drew a throng of politicians, educators, parents, and even schoolchildren. Opponents held signs stating “Say no to vouchers.’’ Testimony of witnesses pro or con the bill often was punctuated by applause. There was an old-style town hall atmosphere at times, as impromptu comments from the audience would accompany testimony.
The bill, A2810, which would establish a pilot program, would provide a maximum of $11,000 to a student exiting selected poor-performing schools.

The Assembly version of the proposal would aid approximately 20,000 students in four years, and cost an estimated cap of $360 million.
The Senate version, somewhat different, passed two weeks ago and would affect 13 selected pilot districts, but possibly service twice the number of children by attempting to interest private corporate sponsorship in the scholarships. 

Angel Fuentes, (D-5) of Audubon, a primary sponsor in the Assembly, championed it as a means to assist children who come to school daily from homes where families struggle daily just to get by.

“Parents with limited means are less able to provide educational options to their children,’’ he said. He decried the “lowered expectations and dashed dreams’’ that harm such children.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker testified that in his city, the public schools have a 54 percent graduation rate, and said “We can’t candy-coat or soft-peddle the realities.” 

He said the educational system is “morally bankrupt’’ and shocking in the way it fails students annually.

Booker talked of lower-income families who lie about their address in order to have their children attend a better school district.  He said this legislation will help children “Get out of the deep dark quicksand of despair and find the high ground.’’

He cautioned that this measure does not free the state of the obligation to fix the failing public school system. “I believe this act is about justice,’’ he said.

However, the N.J. Education Association presented the opposite viewpoint.  Sean Hadley, associate director of government relations, said that however well-intentioned, the bill is a giveaway to those whose children are in private, religious schools.

He said that whether the price tag is the $360 million estimated in the Assembly version or the nearly $1 billion estimated by some for the Senate version, that is a great deal of money involved when public schools are being underfunded.

Supporters presented numerous witnesses in a unified charge for the bill. For example, Mary McElroy, director of the N.J. Network of Catholic School Families, said “This bill is not to save parochial schools; this bill is about children.’’

Following on that, Sister Karen Dietrich, executive director of Camden’s five Catholic schools, which have approximately 1,000 children, most of them non-Catholic, said their per-pupil costs are less than a third of what the public schools face.

Alisha Thomas Morgan, a state representative in Georgia, commended the coalition of different faiths backing the bill, and supported the N.J. proposal as having more accountability and reporting requirements built into it than similar laws in her state.

The opposition was equally as prepared. Rebecca Cox, the president of the Princeton Regional Board of Education, spoke against the proposal. In particular, she wanted to remind the committee of the approximately 2,000 schools in the state that are not failing.

“The bill depletes state tax revenue,’’ she said, and contains a loophole that will allow unclaimed scholarship funds to be distributed to other districts at a time of  a $12 million state budget gap and in an era when thousands of teachers have been fired.
She said the bill exacerbates the problem it purports to solve.
 
Sharon Krengel of the N.J. Education Law Center echoed the criticism that the bill is a giveaway to private and parochial schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers.

She said that it cannot be defended when $128 million has been cut from public schools. “It will further erode the ability to provide education to the vast majority of students who attend public schools.’’

Julia Rubin of the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ said the law “will create the most expensive taxpayer-funded voucher scheme in the country,’’ and that it’s a misconception it will help the poorest students in the failing schools but will instead help children already in private schools.

Adrienne Sanders, the New Jersey State NAACP Education Chair, said in opposition that the law would be “adding another layer of segregation to children in public schools’’ because it is an opportunity only for certain children whereas public education should be a civil right for all.

In response to her, Assembly chair Albert Coutinho (D-29) of Newark said “Let’s be clear; the system isn’t working. Let’s be open-minded.’’
Late in the hearing, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-36) of Passaic, another prime sponsor, said “This is not the time to bemoan the failure of public schools’’ in this country, and said this bill won’t replace what still needs to be done for public schools.

But he said four Catholic schools closed last year within five miles of his home amounting to 1,000 children, and the Scholarship Act is one meaningful part of the solution.

Committee member Domenick DiCicco Jr. (R-4) of Sewell said that for years money has been thrown at the problem without success.  At charter schools, he said, “the focus is laser-like on outcomes, not the money being spent.’’

The measure has drawn sharp divides all along, finding political support and opposition on both sides of the aisle.

The statewide teachers union, concerned about the legislation’s diversion of students, money and resources from public schools, has campaigned against it.

Just as strongly, advocates such as E3, Excellent Education for Everyone, have championed the alternatives this bill would offer to students stuck in troubled schools. E3 is based in Newark.

Coutinho advised the crowd that because of differences in the two bills, the Assembly action Thursday is not the last word. For example, he said there are concerns over income eligibility as well as language that concerns advocates of special education students.