The following was written by Christopher D. Kniesler, the Executive Director of NJ’s premier fiscal conservative think tank, Solutions for New Jersey, Inc. (www.solutionsfornewjersey.org). Given that one of the most important issues, Vouchers, came in front of our legistors in Trenton recently, I felt that Mr. Kniesler’s comments were important to the discussion on School Vouchers or the Opportunity Scholarship Act so I’m posting his op-ed on the subject in my column. I hope you find it informative and enlightening and I’d like to thank Mr. Kniesler for allowing me to use his material.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the Opportunity Scholarship Act. For those who are not fluent in New Jersey politically correctness, “Opportunity Scholarships” is a euphemism for “school vouchers.” School vouchers are the key component of the much larger issue of school choice, which encompasses much more than just charter schools.
Programs such as these opportunity scholarships have proven successful everywhere they are implemented. Studies indicate that these scholarships improve student test scores, produce better academic achievement, breakdown racial barriers, increase student civic responsibility and save state and local tax dollars. Opponents to vouchers point to a recent study that questions the effectiveness of charter schools in Milwaukee, but charters are only one component of the program. All statistics indicate that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) has been successful. A survey of the MPCP indicated that between the years of 2002 and 2008, an additional 3,352 students graduated from high school and that voucher students graduated at a rate 18% higher than the regular public school students.
In fact, a case study of a similar program in the Milwaukee school system showed that the public schools that faced the most competition from these scholarships also showed dramatic academic improvement. In addition, Milwaukee saves over $25 million per year through the program. More important, the parents of the students who participate in these programs now have a positive view of their children’s education and teachers – and the students feel the same way.
Our neighbors across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania saved nearly $150 million between 2001 and 2007 through their Educational Improvement Tax Credit. The Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives estimates that, during the same time period, $1.5 billion in additional public school expenditures were avoided.
As with any initiative, there are many hurdles, organized opposition and naysayers. New Jersey officials should look to the 11 states that have implemented such programs to avoid their pitfalls and setbacks. New Jersey should ignore the false claims and misinformation from the opposition and move forward. The facts are indisputable – opportunity scholarships improve public schools and no study has ever found that they make public schools worse.
The plan under consideration is a timid attempt at best, particularly because there are working models in place. If New Jersey was really serious about education reform, the pilot program must be reduced from 5 years to 3 years. New Jersey already lags behind states like Pennsylvania and Florida in public school reform. In 2010, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual Report Card on American Education gave New Jersey a “C” for its educational reform efforts. We cannot allow ourselves for fall farther behind.
Second, the pilot program should include a wider scope of students and schools – particularly students who fall within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA.) If the scope of the program is too narrow, the results will be too narrow. To achieve great results, the program must be bold and aggressive.
While New Jersey has stood on the sidelines, other states have made great strides in providing school choice. States have even expanded the choice concept to include choice within the school, cyber-learning, home schooling techniques and alternatives to traditional classrooms. We must get into the game before we waste anymore taxpayer dollars and childrens’ futures.
– Christopher D. Kniesler
– Executive Director
– Solutions for New Jersey