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Voucher Bill Bogs Down in Both Houses

High hopes for rapid passage of Opportunity Scholarship Act brought low by competing interests and additional proposals.

Proceeding at a glacial pace through the state Senate, the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act doesn’t look to be moving through the Assembly any time soon, either.

The bill that would create the first school vouchers program in New Jersey now stands in the Assembly’s Commerce and Economic Development Committee, and its chairman said this week that he would consider the proposal -- but only in the context of a larger set of urban school reform measures that has not yet been fully introduced.

“The door is not shut on Opportunity Scholarship Act, but the main concern in the Democratic caucus is it doesn’t go far enough,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) in an interview.

“We have a 50 percent problem in the inner cities, so what good is a 10 percent solution on its own?” he said. “It does have a chance to advance later on this year, but as part of a larger package.”

Coutinho said he and other Assembly Democrats are crafting a package that would include up to a half-dozen bills, ranging from one allowing private or parochial schools to convert to charter schools to one for improving teacher and principal tenure and evaluations.

The Newark assemblyman highlighted another bill he’s sponsoring that would create grants to expand preschool in urban areas, all funded by corporate contributions that in turn get tax credits -- much like the plan for OSA.

“All the studies show that preschool is the best return on investment in education,” he said. “I support comprehensive urban education reform, and OSA can be part of that. But OSA on its own will not be the solution that people are saying.”

Coutinho’s comments do not bode well for a bill that was gathering momentum through the spring but appears to have stalled in the Senate, where it began.

Co-sponsored by state Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), the bill would provide vouchers of $6,000 to 9,000 for 20,0000 low-income students in low-performing schools to attend other schools of their choice, public or private.

But while the bill passed the Senate’s economic development committee -- the first time it has cleared any committee -- it has remained in the Senate’s budget committee after disagreements arose over how best to get it through.

Lesniak openly sought agreements with other Democrats by proposing to limit the vouchers to a few select districts, but the Union County senator was, in turn, publicly rebuffed by Kean -- as well as by Gov. Chris Christie, a strong supporter -- for giving up too much.

Yesterday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said the bill appears to have been bogged down by the weight of all the competing interests.

“I don’t know where it’s at,” Sweeney said. “It’s so all over the place. Until the Governor focuses on it, but I’m sure it’s not his priority right now.”

Sweeney said he has spoken to Christie several times about the measure, which the Governor has called one of his top education priorities, saying as recently as last month that he would demand the legislature act on it this summer.

But the Senate president sounded doubtful that would happen.

“He’s told me he wants it done,” Sweeney said. “But my position is what he wants isn’t acceptable to a lot of people on our side. Unless we come to a compromise. But this is not a priority right now compared to the other bills.”

Advocates who have pressed for the measure for the better part of a decade said the recent legislative maneuvering around the bill -- both public and behind the scenes -- has been frustrating.

Derrell Bradford, director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark-based organization that has led the voucher push, said he would like to see the measures that Coutinho wants to include with the OSA bill.

“If there are other bills, we want to see them now,” Bradford said yesterday. “We don’t want to be in the committee process trying to design a camel in September.”

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