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Voucher Bill Spotlights Private Schools

Opportunity Scholarship Act proposal brings a crowd to Trenton and raises questions about how to keep tabs on private schools accepting voucher kids.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Sen. Raymond Lesniak, cosponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, seeks to quiet the crowd during the unprecedented outdoor Senate hearing.

Kathleen Cirillo has taught English at the St. Mary’s School in Elizabeth for 23 years, more than content with the rules and habits of parochial schools.

But she knows that could change for her and her school under a bill to bring school vouchers to New Jersey.

Introduced and aired yesterday in a legislative hearing held outside on the grounds of the State House, the bill could put private and parochial schools accepting the scholarship vouchers under a microscope.

At least in the bill as written, the schools would have to teach to the same state standards and give many of the same state tests to their students, with the results made public.

A Cautious Smile

That alone prompted a cautious smile from Cirillo, who chaperoned a field trip of 50 St. Mary’s seniors to the hearing, which was forced outside due to the crowds. She was there because of the clear enrollment needs in parochial schools like hers that the vouchers would help rescue.

“While I don’t speak for my principal, actually, I think we could use the accountability,” Cirillo said, a hat shielding her face from the sun.

“Would we suddenly have to teach to the test? Do we want that? Probably not,” she said. “But maybe it would also help us teach to the skills they need.”

Accountability is a favorite word in education reform these days, as national and state leaders talk about new testing and guidelines for public schools that make sure all teachers teach and all students learn.

But the fate of New Jersey’s voucher bill—technically a system of privately financed scholarships paid for by public tax credits—may hinge on the pointed debate over how that accountability would transfer to the private and parochial schools that will be accepting these students.

Will these schools be any better than the public schools they draw students from? How will the public know?

Taking the Same Tests

The bill introduced yesterday and passed by the Senate Economic Growth Committee places new rules on the schools and the students who would take advantage of the $6,000-$9,000 vouchers, most notably requiring them to take some of the same tests as public schools.

Only students coming from persistently poor-performing public schools and meeting low-income requirements would be eligible. Students already enrolled in private schools could also apply.

But it wouldn’t be all the same tests, just in 4th, 8th and 11th grades. And they would not have to pass the high school test to graduate, as do public school students.

Nor would there be much fallout if the students didn’t do well. The data would only be used to evaluate the program as a whole, not the fitness of the individual schools.

“There is no requirement that the schools adhere to the same basic academic and performance standards that the public schools do,” said testimony from Lauren Hill, representing the Education Law Center. “The very same standards which resulted in public schools being labeled failing under this bill.”

‘A Mountain Out of a Molehill’

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), one of the chief sponsors of the bill, said he added language in the latest version that would tighten the testing and said he would consider more. But he said critics are “making a mountain of a mole hill.”

“Anyone just has to take a look at these [private] schools and their track records, where they have most of their students going on to higher education,” he said. “They will be able to keep tabs on a yearly basis on those scholarship students to see how they are doing.”

And Lesniak argued that for all the testing and sanctions leveled on public schools, there remain scores of them with low achievement. The bill is aimed at the schools where a majority of students fail the state’s tests over consecutive years.

Right now, 174 schools would fit that measure.

“I can’t help but observe that in these chronically failing schools there are layers upon layers of accountability, of certifications and reports and oversight and they continue to fail students,” Lesniak said. “I’m not saying accountability is not all that it is cracked up to be, but in those schools it isn’t.”

Outside the State House as speakers streamed up the podium and the crowd of mostly parochial school students cheered or booed, Father Edwin Leahy of St. Benedicts Preparatory School in Newark wasn’t so worried about all the state accountability that may come down on his school.

“They can’t look over the shoulder over the public schools, how are they going to look over mine?” he said.

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