School vouchers aren’t one of those issues that cleanly and neatly is favored by one side of the aisle or the other. Its ideological opposition comes from all sides, although its support, as state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) is finding out again, is primarily from Republicans.
This is the third time around for the voucher bill, S1872, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which critics say will erode the public schools once the lucky few scat for a private sector education.
Lesniak disagrees, kind of.
“I think it’s a very measured response to a specific problem with our public school system,” he said today. “There are chronically failing schools. Allowing some students to go to private schools through the use of tax credits is a way to (get) better performance from (those) chronically failing schools.”
Only kids from state-defined “chronically failing” schools are eligible for vouchers under the proposed law, and only low-income families.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to do better (with our public education system),” he said. “We spend more on public education than any place on the planet.”
He also says that Gov. Chris Christie’s school funding cuts are only making things worse, which is why Lesniak voted against the budget slashing.
Lesniak wasn’t on board with Christie’s cuts, but Christie is on board with Lesniak’s piece of legislation.
“Over 100,000 kids are trapped in nearly 200 failing school districts,” Christie said in his State of the State address this week. “(W)e need to tell those children, and those families, trapped in poor schools that we are coming – and that before this Legislature goes home we will give them more help toward improvement, more hope, and more choice.”
Christie, moments later, called for the passage of S1872, “without any further delay.”
Delay may come though, as some of the top educational proponents in the Senate are already lining up against it, like state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City), himself a public school teacher.
“Public education is under attack,” he said today. “We’re doing away with (teacher) tenure, we’re putting charter schools all over the place.”
Add to the list vouchers.
“I hate to disagree with (Lesniak), but we’re not fixing what’s wrong,” Whelan said. “I can’t imagine any scenario where I would be in favor of it.”
Lesniak said, “Although there’s an ideological divide there are many liberals supporting it, like myself. This is an interesting bipartisan proposal.”
Three problems are met with three solutions, Lesniak said, although the outcomes don’t necessarily guarantee that the public schools, by and large, remain protected.
The first goal: “Helping as many as possible of those kids who are confined to chronically failing schools,” he said.
The second goal: saving taxpayer dollars.
A rash of private school closures has heaped more kids into an already sub-par, but very costly, public education system. Catholic school closures alone are costing the state an additional $800 million per year on public education, Lesniak said.
Not only that, but private education costs less than half of what public education costs, he said, so the state saves money.
The third goal: improving the public school system for those who remain.
The bills does this several ways, Lesniak said, such as by creating competition and stoking public school parents to demand better.
Through some of the cost savings mentioned above, the bill also provides for innovative grants to the failing public schools that kids are evacuating, although amendments may be made before the bill goes before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee next Thursday. “I would like to see that stay in there,” Lesniak said.
Couldn’t the disparity in education created – basing a child’s hope of landing in a successful school on a lottery – couldn’t there be a landslide of public sentiment coming down on the public schools?
“The public schools – administration, faculty – will have to really shape up and do a better job,” he said, or call it a day.
“Some of these schools should close,” he said. “They’re doing a disservice to those families.”
He said the biggest benefactors of the bills are African Americans and Hispanics.
But the NAACP opposes to the bill on two major grounds: it creates disparity of opportunity (see: lottery losers) and could violate the separation of church and state (see: parochial schools).
But even the minority community is split on the issue; the Black Ministers Council and several Hispanic organizations are behind it, Lesniak said.
The fact that liberals are opposing the bill is interesting, he said, because it was Dan Gaby who brought it to his attention.
The Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 1972, Gaby served as executive director of the state’s largest pro-voucher advocacy organization, Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), before he passed away last year.
“This was a passion for him,” Lesniak said, “and he was one of the most liberal voices in the country.”