Voucher pilot program scrutinized

TRENTON – The voucher program known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act came up for repeated discussion during a daylong budget hearing for the Education Department.

The pilot program, the concept of which sometimes divides members of the same political party, was touted to varying degrees by some members of the Assembly Budget Committee today as it heard various issues surrounding the Department’s fiscal year 2014 proposed $12.4 billion budget.

Republican Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon summarized the program, which is budgeted for $2 million and would provide $10,000 scholarships for low-income students at “chronically failing’’ schools, by saying, “It’s all about pulling kids out of failing schools and putting them in better schools.

“Folks are less afraid that it’s going to do damage, and they are more afraid it will work,” he said.

Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf agreed that OSA opponents have a certain motivation. “They are afraid it will damage the status quo. This is about protecting the terrain of the existing bureaucracy,” he said.

Committee Chairman Democrat Vincent Prieto pointed out that not every student of a so-called “failing’’ school is a failing student.

And Democrat Gary Schaer pointed out that since the pilot OSA will affect roughly just 200 children, how can any sound analysis of its success or failure be accomplished with that amount of students.

Cerf agreed that the number of children is probably too small, but added that even so, “after two years we should have something of value’’ on which to assess the program.

He said that if a parent is dissatisfied with their child’s progress under the OSA pilot effort, the parent could remove the student from participation.

“Academic progress is absolutely the essential measure” of the success or failure of OSA, Cerf said.

Committee members touched on a number of other issues.

*Bonnie Watson Coleman renewed her frustration with the glacial pace of repair work at Trenton Central High School.  The project, which she has said previously should have been on the initial list of new construction projects at the Schools Development Authority, is on track to have roof repair work go out for design bids, she was told.

But the Trenton high school needs to be replaced, she said. “It is one of the worst conditions a teacher should teach in, a child should learn in. How do we get beyond the rhetoric? We need to know when we’re going to get anything done.”

*Democratic members criticized the fact that hundreds of districts have to shoulder more of the burden for debt service.

John Burzichelli said the assessment on construction turned into a “hidden’’ tax on districts.

Voucher pilot program scrutinized