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Politics and the OSA Pilot Program

The Opportunity Scholarship Act aims to help failing school districts, but political bartering is helping decide which districts make the short list.

As the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) gains momentum in the Statehouse, political considerations as much as educational ones may end up determining which districts fall under the controversial plan.

The latest bill that has won committee approval in both the Assembly and Senate calls for schools in 13 districts to be part of the five-year pilot. The program would provide vouchers -- or scholarships -- for low-income students to attend private or public schools outside of their home district. The pilot is funded by companies that in turn receive matching tax credits.

The districts included so far range from large urban ones like Newark and Paterson to smaller ones in Plainfield and Orange.

Political Horse-Trading

While some of the included districts may be obvious, others on the list -- and a few off it -- have pointed up the political horse-trading that has also gone on to help it win political support and, just as importantly, blunt the opposition in the Democratically controlled legislature.

Take, for instance, Atlantic City and New Brunswick, districts not included but notably represented by prominent Democrats.

The prime Democratic sponsor of the Senate bill has long acknowledged the need to barter for votes, and yesterday he said the final list will likely change still some more.

"It’s a pilot program, and you have to make choices," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union).

The following are the districts included in the current bill that could go for final legislative vote in the next month, with Gov. Chris Christie already vowing his strong support.

  • Asbury Park
  • Camden
  • East Orange
  • Elizabeth
  • Jersey City
  • Lakewood
  • Newark
  • Orange
  • Passaic
  • Paterson
  • Perth Amboy
  • Plainfield
  • Trenton

According to proponents, they were among more than 30 districts statewide where there are schools that have shown a pattern of low performance. That is defined as schools where either 40 percent of the students failed both the math and language arts sections of the state tests for two straight years, or 60 percent failed at least one section for two years.

But how that was whittled down to 13 districts is where the politics entered into it.

For instance, Atlantic City has arguably just as low-performing schools as the others, but is no longer on the list. Lesniak conceded that the decision had something to do with it being represented by state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), an outspoken opponent of OSA. In New Brunswick, it’s state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) keeping his district off the list.

And of those on the list, Lesniak added, the support of state Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean) was important in Lakewood’s inclusion. Lakewood has also been a controversial choice for the fact that a large number of its children already attend orthodox Jewish yeshivas and could qualify for at least some of the vouchers.

Education Trumps Politics

But the senator and others maintained the politics does not trump the educational rationale, given districts like Lakewood also have large numbers of students attending low-performing public schools.

“Eighty percent of the students statewide in the [low-performing] schools are in these 13 districts,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, the Newark advocacy group that has led the proposal’s public campaign.

Still, the choices have raised some eyebrows among opponents. At a Montclair forum on the topic last night, state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) said the selection of pilot districts have "nothing to do with education," pointing out that charter schools are excluded as well.

"You could be a failing school that is not included," she said. "There has already been a selective political process there."

And others said the process isn’t over. For instance, East Orange is currently included, but some say it may not be for long. The district is represented by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), and last night at the same Montclair event, Oliver lamented how the bill has mushroomed since it was first proposed with just four pilot districts: Newark, Camden, Orange and Trenton.

“We went from what was a demonstration project to this bill calling for, after five years, 40,000 scholarships," she said.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the Assembly’s deputy speaker who represents Orange, initially was a co-sponsor of the bill but said he not only would not support his district as a pilot, but also now is opposed to the bill altogether.

"In it’s initial form I had been a sponsor, but as it expanded, I am not interested any more," he said in an interview. "It started as an experiment, but this is a big difference. It’s now extraordinary in its scope."

Still others are talking about adding districts to the pilot. At an Assembly hearing on the proposal last week, Assemblyman Dominick DiCicco (R-Gloucester) asked that his home district of Gloucester City be included.

All of that has heartened the prime sponsor in the Assembly, who said he will continue to work on crafting a final bill that will gain the most support from both sides of the aisle.

"If legislators felt a district should be included, we’d welcome that," said state Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden). "We are now in a period of back and forth."

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