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Feelings Run High as Opportunity Scholarship Act Moves to the Assembly

Anathema to the teachers union, New Jersey's first voucher program is starting to draw support from Democrats.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act -- New Jersey’s version of a private school voucher bill -- is moving to the Assembly today, and the politicking from all sides is going full bore.

Ads opposing the measure went up from the teachers union this week. Ads returning fire from a school choice advocacy group were in the newspapers yesterday.

At stake is New Jersey's first voucher program, a proposal that would provide up to $11,000 per child to attend a school of his or her choice.

Pushed by Gov. Chris Christie and gaining Democratic allies one by one, the bill at this rate could come up for final vote this spring. It would furnish vouchers -- or "scholarships" -- to low-income students coming out of targeted schools with consistently low student achievement.

The scholarships would be funded by corporate contributions that would earn matching tax credits.

For and Against

"In my years as a legislator, this is one of the bills that has gotten the most reaction," said Assemblyman Al Coutinho (D-Essex), the chairman of the commerce and economic development committee that will hear the bill today.

Coutinho said his Newark district office has been inundated with calls and emails, about evenly split for and against.

He stressed yesterday that his committee is considering the original bill filed in the Assembly last year, not the one endorsed by the Senate budget committee last week.

Under the Assembly version, the program would serve about 20,000 students after four years and cost the state an estimated $360 million, Coutinho said.

The Senate version, including several amendments, would be limited to 13 pilot districts but serve twice as many students. One legislative staff analysis put the pricetag as high as $1 billion.

"That is too much money and too many scholarships,” Coutinho said. "Forty thousands kids, that’s not a pilot."

The assemblyman also stressed even with his committee’s backing, the program still will require an endorsement from Assembly leadership that so far has balked at the measure. “I know there is still significant opposition,” he said.

Coutinho added that he would only want to see this proposal pass in the context of other commitments by Republicans, including stable funding for preschools and school construction in urban districts.

“There is no doubt a crisis in urban education, and we need to be looking at all the options,” he said. “There’s a lot sitting on the table."

A Watershed Moment

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is understandably nervous, as it watches the bill it has fought for years move further than it ever has. "This is a watershed moment," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communication director.

The union has run print and broadcast ads in the last week, as well as pressed its cause through the Internet over its own and other websites, each with tens of thousands of readers.

"It’s generating a lot of heat, and our members are taking it very seriously," Wollmer said.

"We’ll have to see where this goes. It is moving, no question," he said. "But it’s whether it is moving enough to become law."

And that has emboldened the advocates for the measure, led by the Newark-based Excellent Education for Everyone group (E3) and Catholic and other religious school leaders.

Causing its own stir, E3 ran print ads yesterday in large state newspapers, including one that includes a picture of a black student below a bold headline and text.

"My school is failing me!" the ad began. "I go to one of the worst schools in New Jersey. There are 80,000 kids just like me. The New Jersey Education Association wants to me to stay here. Will you help me get out?"

Said Derrell Bradford, executive director of E3: “We knew the NJEA was going to come out swinging, so we had to swing back.”

And he thinks it is having its own impact, with a group of parents and students expected to testify today. Bradford said it has caught the attention of the other side as well, with quite a few angry phone calls coming into his office as well.

“If only they got as upset about their schools,” Bradford said.

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