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Three Key Questions About the Opportunity Scholarship Act

The state's first private school voucher program is gaining backers, but several essential issues remain to be sorted out.

The question is looking to be more "when" than "if" the state legislature will pass the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The legislation that would effectively create New Jersey’s first private school voucher program yesterday passed a key Assembly committee, adding another boost to the sudden and bipartisan momentum the bill has gained in the past month.

But while agreement on even the concept has been noteworthy after decades of heated debate, the next challenge is working out the details that both Senate and Assembly, Republican and Democrat, can agree upon.

"As we walk away, I tell everyone there are still a few more steps in the process, and this is not done yet," said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), chairman of the commerce and economic development committee that unanimously endorsed the measure yesterday.

"There are still some serious and legitimate concerns," Countinho said.

Among them, three fundamental questions that are not yet fully answered.

How many kids and for how much money?

After initially considering a vastly different version of the bill, Coutinho’s committee yesterday embraced a measure that is essentially the mirror image of the Senate version now heading to final vote in that chamber.

The new bill would create a five-year pilot program in 13 districts, offering vouchers -- or scholarships -- for low-income students in low-performing schools to go to public or private schools outside their districts.

But there was a big caveat. The Senate bill would allow for a program that would serve 40,000 students at Year 5 at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion over five years. The Assembly bill passed yesterday would cap the figure at $360 million, or roughly 19,000 students at Year 5.

Others in Assembly leadership have said the bill should be tightened even further, reducing the number of pilot districts to maybe half that. There also are other details within the cost that have yet to be resolved, including how much would be set aside for administration.

Will private schools need to follow public school rules?

Under pressure from critics, the bill passed by both Assembly and Senate committees is considerably more restrictive on the schools accepting the scholarship students.

They would have to be approved by the state or other accrediting agencies, for instance, and they would need to test students with state assessments.

But as private or parochial schools, the schools would be exempt from other regulations that legislators have said leaves them more than uncomfortable.

One that has raised the most concerns is a waiver in the bills that would free the schools from providing special education services for students with disabilities, as long as parents grant them permission.

What is low income?

A contentious point in the bills is a provision that would set aside 25 percent of the scholarships to students already enrolled in private schools, a share that critics contend could go even higher because of technicalities.

But another cutoff has also raised concerns among legislators, one that would set fairly generous income limits for eligible families. Under both versions of the bill, the income limit would be 250 percent of the federal poverty level or roughly $55,000 for a family of four.

Some advocates have pressed to set it higher, but even at the current level it exceeds the federal standards for students to receive subsidized meals in school, and some critics have contended that half the state's families could conceivably be eligible by their incomes.

Coutinho is among the legislators who said the priority should go to the poorest students.

The bill moves next to the Assembly’s budget committee, where many of these issues are expected to resurface. Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) said yesterday that he is open to the bill, but still has much to work out himself.

And back in the upper house, Senate leaders yesterday weren’t ready to sign off either. When told of the Assembly committee’s endorsement, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said of its Senate prospects: "We’re still looking at it."

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