Vouchers escape split committee after Hendricks appearance

TRENTON – State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) waited for acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks to show up before conducting the vote on school vouchers while a plethora of public testimony filled the hours until she arrived.

Sarlo waited to vote on S1842, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, but the payoff was minimal. Moments after Hendricks put her support on record and downplayed the potential negative effects, the committee passed the amended bill, 8-5.

“We will create real opportunities for many families – in some way, shape, or form,” Hendricks said. “It ensures more students have access to quality schools in the state of New Jersey, whether it’s non-public or public schools.”

She doesn’t foresee any problems with ensuring quality schooling at the non-publics participating in the program, and she said the department isn’t asking for any more staff to run the program.

“New Jersey is known for having a big attitude,” she said. “Tonight I hope that attitude is matched with a big heart.”

Sarlo made sure she put her commitment to the public schools on the record, again.

“Nobody is off the hook for those children who are left in those schools,” he said.

Hendrick said the state is “allowing parents to be informed of what quality education looks like,” so that they can also demand better.

Earlier in the day, Sarlo asked the same thing of the bill’s Democratic sponsor, state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).

“What about the kids who are left behind?” Sarlo asked.

Lesniak replied, “You don’t fail to save one (student) because you can’t save them all.”

The theme was reiterated over and over throughout the day.

This bill impacts over 40,000 students from 166 schools in 13 municipalities, and a key amendment may have brought in some of the urban votes that were on the fence.

The original bill used savings the state would find from the student scholarships to fund innovation grants, spread statewide and awarded on a competitive basis.

But some urban lawmakers – like Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange), according to a source close to the bill – wanted the money deposited back into the failing districts.

The bills architects made the change, hoping to avoid a debilitating fight once the bill gets to the Assembly.

It will land in Assembly committee next, before coming to a floor vote in the Senate.

“I do not want to stand in the way of this public policy debate,” Sarlo said, before casting his vote against the initiative. “I just hope those who are going to be involved in this follow through. You get one shot at this.”

State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin Twp.), who voted in favor along with fellow Republicans, said earlier, “I believe in competition. I believe it makes things better…We need to have a healthy public and non-public (education) system.”

Even though her district would be included in the program, state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) voted against it.

“Senators, just because a child goes to private schools doesn’t mean the child will get a better education than public schools.”

Another urban senator, M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), voted in favor after deliberating for days. She said the bill is another attempt to fix a small part of a large problem.

“It should be an all-inclusive approach,” she said while casting her aye vote.

While a heap of organizations lined up today to support the bill, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian made it clear her group was not one of them. “(There is) nothing in this bill that addresses the children who remain.”

Vouchers escape split committee after Hendricks appearance