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Opinion: Deception, Fiscal Irresponsibility, School Vouchers

Gordon MacInnes | January 24, 2011

The school voucher program can't deliver on its promises, but it can help subsidize private schools across the state.

If you watched the Senate budget committee’s hearing on the Christie voucher bill, you would never know that New Jersey is bankrupt. Or that we are in the midst of the most severe crisis to afflict the state since the Great Depression:

New Jersey cannot save the jobs of half of the police force in its most dangerous city, Camden. Nor the jobs of one-third of its firefighters.

Thousands of teachers have been laid off in a state where students consistently achieve at the highest level in the country (except for Massachusetts). School boards are told there can be no relief for rapidly rising special education costs.

The governor says we cannot afford a prosperity-building rail tunnel to New York City because the projected deficit is in the hundreds of millions -- a deficit that could be covered by a 50 cent or $1.00 surcharge on train tickets.

New Jersey leads the nation in slashing its support for public higher education. The result: New Jersey families pay the nation’s second-highest tuitions to send their kids to public colleges and universities.

Despite these inconvenient truths, a majority of the Senate budget committee decided this is the time to take a flyer on a massive pilot program for school vouchers -- one that will benefit private, mainly religious, schools.

In fact, the majority voted to amend the original bill to almost triple the cost to $1.1 billion. This at a time when the governor proclaims that he must contend with a $10 billion budget deficit.

Fiscal Emergency

We can agree that in a fiscal emergency there must be shared sacrifice. For decades, the largest item in the state’s budget has been aid to public schools, reflecting the sentiments of its well-educated polity and a Supreme Court that demanded equity for poor districts.

The pay-off has been enormous: New Jersey students consistently outperform those in states like Connecticut, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, which have nothing like the diversity of students found here. Its black and Latino students perform well above the national average and much higher than other states with diverse populations.

Despite this enviable record of achievement, the language of the Christie administration and voucher advocates suggests that public education is a gross, wasteful failure. Instead of pride, we are scolded and shamed. In fact, it is so embarrassing that New Jersey must launch the most generous voucher program ever considered by a state legislature and do it by April 11, 2011.

Magical Thinking

Of course, Jersey schools are not perfect, especially when it comes to educating very poor kids concentrated in the same schools. This is a problem that has dogged the nation for almost 50 years, and one that evades simplistic, magical answers. Like vouchers.

The first part of the grand deception, then, is that public schools are a huge failure. The second part is that we can afford a frivolously expensive voucher program.

The hasty and confusing review given the bill suggests that this governor and this legislature have learned nothing from the practices and policies that dumped New Jersey into such a deep, debt-ridden, high-tax hole.

This voucher bill stampede mimics the enactment of the pension bond issue in 1997, the single most reckless action in recent memory. The parallels are striking: rush through a complex bill with little information and a drumbeat of deceptive advocacy to deflect attention away from the true objective.

The pension bond was Governor Whitman’s way to make up the revenues lost by slashing income tax rates by 30 percent. Her administration floated a $2.8 billion high-interest, taxable bond to replace annual payments to pension funds. By revising the actuarial assumptions of the pension system and by assuming that the then-bull market would never end, the administration produced reassuring and false numbers about the security of pensions. The pension bond measure exploited the confusion and ignorance of legislators about actuarial principles and practices.

The same breathless and artificial sense of urgency is now being employed by voucher advocates. The drumbeat: There are thousands of poor, minority students trapped in 166 schools in thirteen school districts that need to be rescued with vouchers that will permit them to attend nonpublic schools.

The chief sponsors of the bill, Senators Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), hammer on the shame of not throwing a lifeline to these drowning students.

A close reading of the actual mechanics of the bill and close attention to the results of other voucher programs reveal three misleading assertions:

Poor kids in failed schools will do much better in private school: The most heavily researched voucher program is the first one: Milwaukee. After 20 years, there is no reliable and consistent evidence that those attending nonpublic schools outperform their peers in Milwaukee public schools. In fact, the most neutral and reliable evaluation found that an early literacy program in the public schools produced the best results.

The purpose of the bill is to save poor students in failing public schools: In fact, most of the scholarships will not go to students trapped in such schools. Instead, it is likely that most vouchers will benefit students already attending a private school or to students attending effective public schools.

In Elizabeth, for example, only 1,500 of its 22,000 students attend a "failing" school, but the other 20,500 are allowed to apply for a scholarship if they meet the income ceiling. Moreover, already enrolled students are eligible for vouchers even if their schools will not admit students from failing district schools.

Right off the top, 25 percent of the money goes to already enrolled students attending any private school, including those that will not enroll kids from failed schools.

The bill will save 40,000 students in failed schools: There are not enough places in private schools with the experience and interest to enroll the number of students funded in the bill.

The 22,500 students attending "failing" schools in Newark, for example, can look to only seven Catholic schools (two of which are already filled), two independent schools and three evangelical schools offering perhaps 500 places (the evangelical schools do not teach to the New Jersey science standards and thus should not be eligible). The same paucity of opportunity prevails in Camden, Paterson and Trenton -- the cities with the largest enrollments in failed schools.

If the sponsors of the bill want to create a program for kids in those 166 schools, it could be easily accomplished by amending the legislation. Strike the 25 percent off-the-top payment to students already in private schools; limit vouchers to students in one of those 166 schools; reduce the ceiling to the original amounts ($6,000 for K-8; $9,000 for 9-12); and reduce the income ceiling to the criterion for reduced lunch prices.

If the bill's sponsors won't do this, we can be sure that their real motivation is to subsidize private schools all over the state -- even if they won’t take students from failing schools.

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