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Spotlight: Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver

John Mooney | July 8, 2011

In an extensive interview, the Democratic leader explains why the voucher bill is going nowhere for the time being, and shares her opinions on charter schools and education reform.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) doesn’t back away from the notion that she's the main roadblock to a school voucher bill ever passing New Jersey's legislature.

And the former East Orange school board president doesn’t deny that she balked at moving the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) in the final days of this legislative session, despite some predictions that the OSA would slide through with enough support from Democrats.

But in extended comments yesterday on the bill, the Assembly speaker maintained that she’s not against the underlying concept of the OSA, which would provide through tax credits up to $12,000 "scholarships" for select poor children to attend private schools.

Still, Oliver indicated that the votes aren't there for the bill as it is proposed now, listing several specific provisions to be purged. And in what is a blow to its backers, she said further action probably won’t happen until after the legislative elections in the fall.

"I think it could be a demonstration project, one where we really collect data on it and then decide on what we want to replicate," she said in the interview. "I’m not averse to that, but I am averse to the last bill that I saw."

The comments were part of a lengthy discussion on the education reform opinions of arguably the second most powerful person in the legislature, behind only Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Source of Tension

Under Oliver's leadership the Assembly has been the source of the greatest tensions over Gov. Chris Christie’s own reform agenda, which pushes vouchers and charter schools, as well as tougher tenure and evaluation rules for teachers.

Besides balking at the OSA, the Assembly last week did move a package of charter school bills that could potentially place new limits on the alternative schools being pushed by Christie. Oliver and other Democratic leaders have also yet to move on tenure reform proposals.

Oliver said she’s of the camp that does not believe the New Jersey’s public education system needs the wholesale changes that Christie has proposed, saying the problems lay mainly in urban schools under the pressures of poverty, crime and family instability.

She praised the reform ideas of "small learning communities" and magnet schools focused on specific areas of study. She said just breaking up large inner-city high schools would do wonders.

"I don’t believe it’s about tenure reform or all the other ideas being thrown out there," she said. "That still won’t get to the core of how do we serve at-risk kids."

Critical Alternatives

She said alternatives are critical, and she included private and parochial schools in that mix, as well as public charter schools. But she said the OSA had too many issues that concerned her and other Democrats in the caucus.

Oliver criticized overhead costs in the bill that she said would amount to millions over four years, as well as the lack of controls on the quasi-public boards that would administer the scholarships.

She is against another provision that would provide up to a quarter of a district's allotment of vouchers to students already in private schools or parochial schools. And she said the bill needs to be smaller than the more than a dozen districts targeted in the latest Assembly measure, some of which Oliver said are not failing.

"When it became an initiative to also save parochial schools, it got off track," she said.

What happens next, she would not say. She said another proposal is being drafted that may scale the measure back significantly, and she said she continues to talk with proponents, including those in her district like the Rev. Reginald Jackson, the City of Orange church pastor who has been one of the biggest cheerleaders of vouchers.

But Oliver did not list the OSA as one of the education measures that the Assembly would take up when it returns in the fall, saying those would likely include more charter school reforms and proposals for improving teacher tenure. She even said other controversial proposals from the governor could get an airing this fall, including his pilot proposal unveiled in Camden last month for private companies to operate a handful of the lowest-performing schools.

"If that is something the leaders in Camden asked for, I don’t think we’d stand in the way of that," she said.

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