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Opinion: OSA: Exploiting Poor Kids in Failed Schools

Running the numbers makes it clear that the Opportunity Scholarship Act isn't about helping at-risk kids.

New Jersey is bankrupt -- actually if not technically. Governor Chris Christie acts like the CEO of a bankrupt business, slashing costs, canceling capital investments and trimming payrolls and benefits. At least that's how he behaves when it comes to public employee pensions or the Hudson rail tunnel.

When it comes to supporting private schools, however, Christie's behavior is markedly different. The governor who (understandably) reduced aid to public schools by almost a billion dollars thinks it’s okay to spend at least $360 million the state doesn’t have on religious schools.

This proposal is being made in the name of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) – a bill that purportedly helps poor kids attending failed schools. But as I discussed in my previous column, at least 25 percent of OSA funds are reserved for students already attending private schools. This time we'll take a look at where the other 75 percent goes.

Frustration and Failure

A careful analysis of the administration’s proposal shows that kids in failing schools are not the real beneficiaries. Instead, OSA exploits frustrations about the persistent failure of some city schools in order to assist religious schools that have either no interest in educating Latino and black students (the ultra-Orthodox schools) or no proven proficiency at educating them better than public schools (evangelical and parochial schools).

The administration has not released a list of “persistently failing” schools as defined in OSA. As a surrogate, I have used the NJ Department of Education's list of the 20 lowest-performing schools, the same list the administration used to apply for federal School Improvement Grants (SIG). It turns out that sixteen of the twenty schools are found in the eight districts targeted by OSA, which include Camden and Newark. Curiously, no schools in Elizabeth, Orange, Passaic or Lakewood -- all on the OSA target district list --made the SIG list.

Assume your child attends a failing school: What nonpublic school choices are available? You can begin by excluding any of the expensive, independent schools like Lawrenceville or Pingry. While concerned about diversity, they are not interested in struggling, special education or English-learning students -- those most likely to be found in the worst schools.

Out of Luck

Camden is a useful example. Its eight failing schools enroll 3,175 students – including 1,016 at Camden High School. CHS students are out of luck. There are no nonpublic options in Camden, and the chances that a suburban private high school would welcome Camden students are near zero. (Imagine the outcry from tuition-paying parents when they learn that some of the poorest kids from one of the nation’s most dangerous cities are to be enrolled.)

Elementary students could pick from three parochial or one evangelical Christian K-8 schools or an independent Catholic middle school. The four K-8 schools have only one class per grade and already enroll about 20-25 kids per class. The middle school is limited to 15 students per grade and is filled.

Assuming that each of the four K-8 schools could add about five students in each grade, there might be spots for about 180 of the 3,175 students in failing schools, as long as they were not disabled.

But the Christie bill does not limit voucher opportunities to just the 3,175 students in failing Camden schools. It opens them to any student in any Camden public school. That means there are 10,615 eligible applicants competing for 180 places in the K-8 grades and 2,308 for no places in 9-12.

A similar analysis of Newark reveals that the openings in nonpublic schools there are even scarcer.

OSA’s proponents must have anticipated that only a few students in failing public schools would benefit from vouchers. So they mandate that funds not spent on public school students go to those students already enrolled in nonpublic schools, even if they exceed the 25 percent specified target. Amendments prepared for the latest version of OSA raise the ceiling on eligible recipients to 40,000 by the fifth year - - and eliminate the requirement that highest priority go to kids in failed schools.

Forty thousand! Go back to NJ DOE’s own list of the twenty worst-performing schools. They enroll only 8,175 students, almost one quarter of whom are classified as disabled. OSA offers leeway to eligible private schools to exclude special education students by explicitly counseling applicant parents that the school is not proficient at serving their children.

Basically, the administration’s bill deceptively states it is aimed at kids in failing public schools when there are places for only a tiny fraction of them in private schools. The clear objective of the bill is to subsidize religious schools by granting taxpayer dollars to pay for the education of up to one-third of those already enrolled. The big winners are the parents of students enrolled in Lakewood’s 65 and Passaic’s six gender-segregated schools for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

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