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Latest Version of School Voucher Bill Heads for Senate Budget Committee

Backers say it has the votes to clear committee, but tougher battles await the controversial legislation.

Thirteen districts, 166 schools, 82,000 students.

Those are the numbers in the latest version of the bill to create a private school voucher program in New Jersey, the latest stage in a multi-year saga that will see the new bill coming before the Senate budget committee today.

As they have said before, sponsors are confident the bill has the votes to get through the influential committee. Maybe more notably, the Democratic chairman and a key opponent does not rule it out.

"It will be a very, very spirited debate, and I think we’ll be there for a while," said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the budget committee who has said he will vote against the bill. "I’m thinking in the four-to-six-hour range."

The proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act has taken many forms since first proposed, initially as a pilot for a half-dozen districts and then expanded to dozens more. But when it stalled last year after passage in the Senate’s economic development committee, sponsors went back to work and crafted a new measure.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the lead sponsor with state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), yesterday laid out the new details -- and some of the compromises that he said have brought the bill back from near-death.

For starters, the initial proposal that would draw funding from public school districts has been ditched. But additional money was also being earmarked for each voucher, up to $11,000 per student. The vouchers – backers call them “scholarships” – would be paid through corporate contributions that, in turn, would receive matching tax credits.

And the number of districts continues to change. As of yesterday afternoon, it was a five-year pilot program that includes 166 schools in 13 districts that show persistently low student test results.

According to Lesniak’s outline, the following are the districts in the proposed pilot, the number of schools targeted, percent of students affected:

  • Asbury Park (4 schools, 89% of district students)

  • Camden (22 schools, 83% of district students)

  • East Orange (2 schools, 31% of district students)

  • Elizabeth (2 schools, 7% of district students)
  • Jersey City (10 schools, 28% of district students)

  • Lakewood (1 school, 14% of district students)

  • Newark (36 schools, 57% of district students)

  • Orange (4 schools, 31% of district students)
  • Passaic (5 schools, 39% of district students)

  • Patterson (22 schools, 55% of district students)

  • Perth Amboy (1 school, 13% of district students)

  • Plainfield (6 schools, 62% of district students)

  • Trenton (14 schools, 77% of district students)

In addition, the amount of the vouchers or scholarships was raised from $6,000 to $8,000 for K-8 students, and from $9,000 to $11,000 for high school.

While accountability measures were still being drawn up last night, said one supporter, Lesniak’s outline saw participating schools required to administer state assessments to students and to report the scores to the state.

Lesniak last night said the elimination of a provision that would have drawn dollars from local districts was a crucial turning point.

“I think that was the key,” he said. “It’s a lot less impactful in terms of money leaving the districts than even what happens with charter schools.”

And while Sarlo said last week that his committee hearing the bill would be an “exercise in futility,” he said last night that he wouldn’t get in the way.

“Personally, I don’t support the concept of taxpayer-supported vouchers, but I don’t want to be an obstructionist and let individual feelings get in the way of an important debate,” he said.

Lesniak was confident that it would have the votes to pass the Senate committee, likely needing two Democratic votes. That still leaves a full Senate vote, and then the same process in the Democratic-led Assembly.

Listing the various committees and votes required, "this bill still has six bills to jump over," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, the organization that has led the campaign to enact the bill.

“But a vote tomorrow is 100 percent more than we had last May, and 1,000 percent more than we had before that,” he said.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which has campaigned hard against the measure, put out a release last week saying that a previous version of the bill could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion. A spokesman last night said the latest version with its higher per-student costs makes that estimate even more likely.

"This is turning into a bizarre auction of public finances that appears to have less to do with education than it does with politics," said spokesman Steve Wollmer.

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