By Derrell Bradford
Opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA, S-1872/A-2810)—a voluntary pilot program that would provide a lifeline to thousands of students in the State’s lowest-performing public schools—continue to sing the same song, and the tune tells us much about their priorities. The high notes ignore the glaring failure of the State’s worst public schools. And the chorus parrots a sclerotic status quo that is unwilling to change, but all too willing to spend. The title of this off-key opus to underperformance, you ask? “Kids in Failing Schools Don’t Matter.”
Asserting something so damning would be outlandish if the evidence were not so apparent. As State Senator Barbara Buono—a legislative leader and possible candidate for governor—recently told her constituents, the 200 failing schools statewide identified by the OSA, and by extension the 100,000 students who attend them, are “not a bad percentage” of the whole. If nothing else, she affirms the second-class status of the students—who are overwhelmingly poor and minority—attending these schools. She, and OSA detractors, say no to Opportunity Scholarships, but yes to a system that remains both separate and unequal.
OSA opponents also ignore the financial and accountability frameworks upon which the bill rests. The Office of Legislative Services, a non-partisan entity, has scored the OSA and reports it as revenue neutral to the State, costing taxpayers nothing over the life of the five-year pilot. It also finds that the OSA will reduce class sizes by as many as 30,000 students in the 13 pilot districts and return over $354 million to them for these children, even though they no longer need to educate them. The OSA costs taxpayers nothing, but the opportunities it will provide to children in failing schools are surely priceless.
And the Commissioner of Education himself has the power to approve or deny the participation of any nonpublic school in the program. Schools that, under the OSA, must enroll students by lottery, and give them the same state tests as their public school counterparts. Additionally, Professor Patrick Wolf, in his work commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, found that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, an OSA-like program which was killed by national teacher unions, produced reading gains of 19 months for students in the program the longest. By all accounts, it is one of the most effective educational interventions ever attempted.
Poll results also show support for the OSA where it counts…in communities of color where children are being destroyed by failing schools. A recent Rutgers poll showed support for private school choice in New Jersey at 52% among African Americans compared to 37% opposed. In 2008, when Monmouth University conducted a poll that specifically described the OSA, they found support among African Americans and Hispanics at 81%. Why this disconnect between what parents want and what some of our leaders oppose? Because schools, underperforming or otherwise, are powerful financial engines for teacher unions and others that oppose reform. And to empower parents with choice would upset this cottage industry funded by failure.
OSA opponents make it obvious they don’t support two things: kids and facts. When children are in failing schools, leave them there. When they don’t like what the facts say, ignore them. Protecting failing schools is not more important than giving our children a chance to become productive citizens and equal participants in the American experiment. The defenders of status quo have had their chance to fix it and do right by these kids.
Now, it’s the OSA’s turn.
The author is executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3)