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Proposed Parent-Trigger Bill Adds School Vouchers to Available Options

Republican-backed measure is one of few in country that would let parents use vouchers to opt out of failing schools.

A Republican-backed bill that would give parents unprecedented rights to remake low-performing schools would offer them three options: replace the school’s staff, convert the school to a charter, or request vouchers to attend other public or private schools.

The bill is expected to be filed today by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), and would go beyond most other states’ versions of the so-called parent trigger by offering school vouchers.

California has enacted a similar law that would allow for charter conversions, and the first such petition was submitted last week for a Compton elementary school. A half-dozen other states have considered comparable measures.

Majority Rules

Kyrillos said in a press release that his bill -- the Parent Empowerment and Choice Act -- would require the state to act within six months of families’ approved petitions on any one of the three options. A majority of eligible households would be required for the petition to be approved.

"The Parent Empowerment and Choice Act allows parents to take matters into their own hands when the system will not change on its own," Kyrillos said in the press release. "It allows for swift intervention to give children the educational opportunity state law requires, but all too often is not provided.”

Kyrillos said last month that he would propose such a measure. The main question was how far he would go in the options available to parents.

His bill would apply only to schools where less than 60 percent of students pass the state’s math and language arts tests for two straight years, or two-thirds of students fail one of the two tests for two years.

The proposal is one of several controversial measures coming before the state legislature, many of them dealing with charter schools and school choice.

A long-running proposal to create a tax credit-funded program providing private school vouchers, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is currently before the Assembly’s economic development committee. Its chairman, state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), said last week that it would likely be taken up in January.

Another bill that would expand the approval process and availability of charter schools in New Jersey has been cleared by the Senate education committee but has yet come to full vote.

Christie Charters

The Christie administration is also expected to present a package of proposals that would include measures to expand charter schools, including provisions similar to Kyrillos’ proposal.

Public school associations are expected to oppose Kyrillos’ plan, with the state’s dominant teachers union already saying decisions about a school’s fate should be left to educators.

New Jersey now permits a public school to convert to a charter school, but requires a majority vote of both teachers and parents. No such conversions have been proposed, let alone approved.

A spokesman for the state’s school boards association this weekend said his group has no position yet on Kyrillos’ proposal but would like local school boards to have a say in the decision as well. The group has pressed that local school boards be permitted as authorizers and sponsors of charter schools.

“Charter schools could be a strategy of effective education reform that should be available to school boards,” said spokesman Frank Belluscio. “Existing statute, however, does not give local school boards a role either as sponsors or as authorizers of charter schools.”

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