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Op-Ed: Trenton Leadership Needs To Make School Choice Top Priority

NJ Spotlight's recent interview with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver hopefully drew attention to a mired process of addressing what has been called the key civil rights issue of our time -- educational choice. The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is designed to give inner-city parents in the most hopelessly failing school districts the same choice for their children's education that affluent parents have elsewhere in New Jersey.

Speaker Oliver is to be commended for her willingness to put the issue on the table for this year. I sincerely hope that the time between now and the opening of the next legislative session can be used to bring all sides together on a bill designed to, for the first time, remove the importance of a parent’s zip code from its attachment to the fate of their children -- many of whom stand a less than 50 percent chance of emerging from their neighborhood school ready for higher education and a productive life.

The effort to pass the OSA has brought together a broad spectrum of New Jersey's political and social leaders who see the historic opportunity to break the generational cycle of crime, poverty and hopelessness in our inner cities. The effort has not been without its frustrations. As Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, said earlier this month: "Again, action on the Opportunity Scholarship Act is delayed, postponed, stalled -- because low-income and minority children, and their education and futures, are not as important to state leaders as other interests…. these legislators decry increasing violence, gangs and unemployment and say we have to do something about it, and then when they have a chance to take even a small step, which the OSA is, they don’t act."

I would ask Speaker Oliver and the rest of Trenton's legislators to remember that in just a few weeks, thousands of New Jersey children will step onto a bus for the first time, beginning their kindergarten or first grade experience in our public education system. In many of our inner city districts, that step will herald the beginning of a forced march through a failed monopoly -- a path of doom from which their parents are powerless to exit. One can debate whether 47 percent or 54 percent of them will emerge without the tools to prepare them for higher education, but whatever it is, the number is more than a compassionate society should bear. The tragedy of this reality is it targets our most vulnerable fellow citizens -- the inner-city families without the resources to move out of their school districts or choose schools more suited to their child’s educational needs.

Recognition of the historic OSA opportunity crosses all races, creeds and political parties. Governor Chris Christie supports the Opportunity Scholarship Act, as do Democratic legislators and state leaders like George Norcross and urban activists like Rev. Jackson. These people have courageously stepped up, even in the face of attacks by organized proponents of the status quo in our inner city schools like the teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The NJEA is sponsoring a series of personal attack advertisements on the OSA supporters meant to foster hatred, not hope, and shed heat, not light. One wonders what our state’s children think as they watch these hateful TV ads and learn they are paid for by their teachers mandatory union dues.

New Jersey's urban children need their elected representatives to exhibit the political courage that so many already have. This fall will see a battle played out between the bullies with the bullhorns and those with the courage to stand up and speak for the future of our children -- today’s children, not the next generation who can’t afford to wait through endless political wrangling for a sound education. I ask Assembly Speaker Oliver and all the elected officials in our state to remember that the children stepping on to those buses in Camden and Trenton and Newark this fall do not have time for that.

Norm Alworth is president of E3, Excellent Education for Everyone, New Jersey’s leading urban public school reform organization.

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