Opportunity Scholarships Overcome Crucial Hurdles in New Jersey

Published February 15, 2011

A key New Jersey state Assembly panel has cleared the New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill to aid low-income students in the state’s worst schools. The vote sets the stage for a contentious floor fight over the bill even though it has bipartisan support.

The Commerce and Economic Development Committee unanimously approved Assembly Bill 2810 by Angel Fuentes (D-Brooklawn) and Jay Webber (R-Morris). All three Democrats on the panel, including committee chairman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), voted yes.

The Feb. 3 Assembly committee vote followed the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee’s 8-5 vote approval in January of Senate Bill 1872 by Sens. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union), a companion bill with virtually identical language.

If passed, AB 2810 would set up a five-year trial program allowing a specified number of children in the 13 worst-performing school districts in New Jersey to choose another public school or a private or parochial school. Approximately 80 percent of students statewide that attend failing schools reside within those 13 districts. 

The act would be financed through tax-deductible private donations.

‘The Poor Are Trapped’

A diverse coalition of organizations including the NJ School Choice Alliance, the Latino Leadership Alliance, New Jersey Catholic Conference, Agudath Israel of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Alliance of African American Ministers are supporting the OSA. The bill’s’ sponsors say the groups’ participation shows how much support has grown for school choice in the Garden State over the past decade.

“Those of us from across the ideological spectrum who support this bill see a shared characteristic of every chronically failing school in every troubled district: That they were not broken in a day, and they cannot be fixed overnight,” said Kean. “Solving problems that have snowballed over many years requires the sort of big ideas and big reforms that take time to achieve.”

Howard Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the New Jersey Orthodox Union, said his organization was a “proud and strong supporter of change and choice.” Beigelman said the Orthodox Union’s support was based on more than just sound public policy.

“It’s also about Jewish values,” he explained. “The poor and near-poor in our society are trapped in failing schools. That’s not right or fair.”

Reconciliation Required
According to Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the main difference between the Senate and Assembly versions of the bill at this point are the number of scholarships to be provided. The assembly version would allow approximately 20,000 scholarships, and the state Senate version would allow 40,000 scholarships.

“I think that we’ll end up somewhere in the middle of those two numbers,” explained Bradford. “The key thing that we are seeing right now is that Democrats are lining up to support this bill.”

Although there are still concerns about some aspects of the bill within the Democratic caucus, Coutinho said the recent committee vote was “a sign that we’re serious about education reform and considering all options.”

Gov. Chris Christie (R) has indicated he will sign OSA. Christie has received much national attention during his first year in office by directly taking on the New Jersey Education Association’s opposition to reform.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), a strong proponent of school choice, says he sees the proposal as just part of what’s needed. 

“The Opportunity Scholarship Act doesn’t remove our moral obligation to fix the failing public schools in New Jersey, nor does it relieve the crime that’s happening every day when we fail our children,” explained Booker. “But it’s about time we give some small sliver of immediate hope for parents who are desperate in our city.”

Opposing Ad Campaigns
Prior to the hearing, opponents of the bills aired commercials throughout New Jersey criticizing them. In response, E3 launched a print advertising campaign designed to educate voters about the NJEA’s decades-old opposition to school choice of any kind.

The ad, which pictured a little girl, read: “My school is failing me. I go to one of the worst schools in New Jersey. There are 80,000 kids just like me. The New Jersey Education Association wants me to stay here. Will you help me get out? Support the NJOSP.”

According to Bradford, choice opponents painted E3’s ad as “everything wrong with politics in America today,” which he found “unbelievable.”

“I wish these people were as outraged about the failure of our schools as they were about the ads,” said Bradford.

‘We’ll Go Toe to Toe’
The Assembly version of the bill still has to make its way through at least one more legislative committee before it can go to the floor for a final vote. Bradford says he’s cautiously optimistic, acknowledging the early momentum behind the bill will be slowed by the concerted opposition.

“The legislative process is tumultuous,” Bradford noted. “We are moving toward our goal of providing educational options for these children and parents trapped in underperforming schools in as deliberate a fashion as we can.”

But knowing how critical this issue is in New Jersey, Bradford says E3 won’t be afraid to take the gloves off in the fight for children.

“We’ll go toe to toe with anyone who is going to stand in the way of a child having an opportunity to get a better education,” said Bradford. 

Andrew LeFevre ([email protected]) is president and CEO of the Arizona Choice in Education Foundation.?