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Op-Ed: Vouchers Threaten New Jersey Public Schools

Vouchers are politically, educationally, philosophically and constitutionally wrong either for one NJ school or for an entire district.

Despite the lack of popular and legislative support for vouchers in New Jersey, the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) just won't go away. Strong pushback against vouchers last winter from public school parents and advocates provided encouragement for the many legislators who do not support the bill. Deep opposition, coupled with polls clearly showing a majority of NJ residents oppose vouchers and the uproar over spending taxpayer money on private and religious schools, has stopped the OSA in its tracks.

But recently there’s been talk in Trenton about scaling back the OSA to a pilot program for five or six districts. Trying to gain a foothold in New Jersey, voucher proponents see a smaller pilot program as a way to blunt criticism that the original OSA bill covering 13 districts was too expensive.

But here's the bottom line: A plan that is politically, educationally, philosophically and constitutionally wrong for 13 districts is still wrong for six.

Let’s start with the assumption among some that vouchers will rescue children from poorly performing public schools. In the two decades since vouchers were first adopted in the U.S., numerous academic studies have found that vouchers do not help children learn any better than if they had stayed in the public schools. In addition, voucher systems in other states have been found to support student segregation by race, ethnicity and ability.

Second, vouchers hand public money over to private and religious schools that are unaccountable in every way. Private and religious schools select students and teachers on the basis of criteria that support their missions. These schools do not have to accept every voucher student for whom they have space; they are free to use their existing admissions criteria, even if it gives preference to students of a particular religion, gender, or sexual orientation, or discriminates against children with disabilities.

In sharp contrast, public schools must take all comers, and must follow state and federal anti-discrimination laws in their treatment of students and staff.

Public schools also are held to strict levels of academic accountability under the federal No Child Left Behind act, as well as under state laws and regulations. Private and religious schools are not held to these standards, and in fact do not administer standardized tests to their student populations. This makes comparisons between private and public school outcomes impossible, and means that parents do not have a reliable indicator by which to judge student achievement at private and religious schools.

But perhaps the biggest problem with a pilot voucher program is the cost to New Jersey's beleaguered taxpayers. A quick calculation shows that offering vouchers to six, instead of 13, districts, will still cost $390 million in public funds. With a still troubled U.S. and New Jersey economy, this is no time to be embarking on pilot programs to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Voucher proponents often say the program will be funded by private money and won’t cost the taxpayers a cent. But corporations providing funding for the voucher scheme would receive every penny of their "contributions" back in the form of one-to-one tax credits from the state, leaving New Jersey taxpayers to foot the bill for this experiment while depleting the state treasury of tax revenue that could be used to fully fund our public schools.

There is no question that a small percentage of NJ public schools need to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for the students they serve. These schools mainly exist in New Jersey's most impoverished neighborhoods, educating very high numbers of at-risk students, English language learners, and student with disabilities and other special needs. We owe it to these children to provide their schools with the resources and support they need to succeed. Slowly but inexorably chipping away at their schools with vouchers and other schemes that have failed children in other states does them, their families and their communities a major disservice.

The voucher pilot scheme opens a Pandora’s Box. We can't afford to waste scarce public funds on an experiment that has failed in other states, and that will drain resources and civic support from public schools and students that need our help the most. It’s time to kill the voucher bill, “pilot” or otherwise, once and for all.

Sharon Krengel is the policy and outreach coordinator for the Education Law Center.

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