Why is the New Jersey legislature being stampeded to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a new program that will transform our education policy? Why is OSA, which will drain the treasury of somewhere between $840 million and $1.2 billion, being rushed through the Assembly during the worst fiscal crisis since the Depression?
Do OSA advocates have something to hide?
OSA says to 1.3 million public school students, their parents, and taxpayers: "private, particularly religious, schools deserve top priority." Otherwise, how could a governor and legislative allies take $820 million from the public schools and hand it over to private schools for a generous new program that is being deceptively sold and is almost certain to fail?
Worse, how could the legislature jam OSA through without answering some obvious questions? Here are just a few of those that have been ignored or deflected during two legislative committee meetings on the bill:
According to the testimony of OSA’s sponsors and advocates, the bill focuses on "low-income students trapped in chronically failing public schools." If that is the primary intent of the bill, why does most of the money go to students not enrolled in chronically failing schools?
Start with the fact that 25 percent of all funds go automatically to students who are already enrolled in private schools. Then, if vouchers are not fully used by public schools students in failing schools, the funds are shifted to students in other schools in the same district or to students already enrolled in private schools, even private schools that will not accept public school students.
Only students in thirteen "targeted" districts are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools. What criteria were used to select these districts? Lakewood, for example, has only 5,200 public school students, but is home to a high number of private schools -- ultra-orthodox, gender-segregated yeshivas. Meanwhile, Atlantic City, Irvington, and New Brunswick—with between 20 percent and 42 percent more students—ignored? And if a chronically failing school is a charter school, why are students in charter schools not eligible under OSA?
If New Jersey cannot prevent the layoff of half of Camden’s police officers or thousands of teachers across the state, where does it find hundreds of millions for private school vouchers?
What evidence can the sponsors produce -- other than the statements of schools that will benefit from the voucher program -- that very poor children from very poor schools will improve their academic achievement? So far, the only reputable scholar who testified confirms that the evidence is very strong that most students transferring to private schools will do no better and many will do worse than their classmates "left behind" in public schools.
This extensive and very generous experimental program is to be managed by a three-person board appointed by the governor with all three persons "representative" of a business subject to the corporate tax. Why should the board not be made up of people who have experience in urban education, in evaluation of educational programs, or managed grant programs?
The Senate Budget and Appropriations committee increased the maximum payment to private schools to $8,000 for elementary schools and $11,000 for high schools. Since the tuitions at most parochial schools in and around targeted districts are around $4,500 for elementary and not more than $9,000 for high school, why increase the potential costs to taxpayers?
The school district from which a student transfers to a private school must pay the transportation costs for the student. Since students may apply to eligible schools within a 20-mile radius, what are the estimated per-student transportation costs to taxpayers in targeted districts?
The criteria for a private school being accepted as eligible to receive students from failing schools are that that they have been in business for five years, with end-of-the year financial statements, and an independent audit. That’s it. Why are there no requirements that the school demonstrate that it knows how to educate children from poor families?
A brand-new school can be approved by submitting a proposal that lists its objectives, strategies, board members, faculty (with degrees and experience), facilities, equipment and tax-exempt status under the federal tax laws. Why would the commissioner not be empowered to seek evidence that the new school is run by people who know how to educate poor kids?
Eligible schools must give the state tests to their voucher students, but that information will not be available if there are fewer than 10 voucher students in any grade. In short, there will be no information about how well voucher students are performing. Why not require that any eligible school demonstrate that its instruction is consistent with the New Jersey core curriculum standards and that all of its students take the state tests?
Since the Opportunity Scholarship Act marks a radical departure in New Jersey educational policy, why not give the new board more than four weeks to set the program up and get it running? Why not, at a minimum, give the board one year to answer all the questions that the OSA does not?
If the OSA is truly aimed at helping low-income students in chronically failing public schools get a hand up and out, why not limit the vouchers to low-income students in chronically failing schools and save the taxpayers a bundle of money that they don’t have?
There is only one category of private school that has demonstrated decades of hospitality and concern for children from poor families living in poor neighborhoods: Catholic elementary schools. If the governor and legislature want to help Catholic schools increase their enrollments of kids from poor urban districts, then pass a law that does that. Right now, it looks as if the governor and legislative leaders are more interested in bailing out ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Lakewood, which will not admit poor black and Latino kids from failing schools. Otherwise, the OSA bill would be consistent with its rhetoric. It is not.