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Church Withholds Blessing from School Conversion Bill

The church favors school vouchers over a measure that could help keep some parochial schools open.

A bill to allow private and parochial schools to convert to public charters looked as if it was on the fast track to passage in the legislature last week.

Then it wasn’t, for what may be a surprising reason.

In an unusual late summer session, the Senate budget committee convened last Thursday to hear just three bills, the charter conversion bill being the most prominent among them. But while it passed the committee 9-4, it was pulled from a full Senate vote that same day

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the chief sponsor of the measure, said it was largely a technicality preventing the immediate vote. But he also acknowledged yesterday that he wasn't sure the bill would make it after all without the support of the one group it was meant to help most: Catholic schools.

“Unless we can show a demonstrated need [from the Catholic schools], probably not," said Lesniak.

In fact, the church appears to favor another bill entirely, the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), which awards vouchers that enable public school students to attend private and parochial schools.

"I think this [conversion] bill is for legislators trying to get cover for not supporting OSA," said George Corwell, education director for the New Jersey Catholic Conference. "The OSA would more fulfill our mission, give kids a real chance, and keep the successes of Catholic schools going."

Twists and Turns

This is just the latest twist for a bill that has been part of a larger package of charter school reforms. While many of the other bills have stalled for a variety of reasons, the conversion bill emerged in August with a chance to win quick passage and potentially help some parochial schools on the verge of closing.

For the bill to apply to a private or parochial school, it would have to meet several strictures. For example, it would have to prove that it delivers an adequate education and that it is located in a district with a record of low student achievement in its public schools.

What's more, parochial schools would specifically need to remove all vestiges of religious instruction, from adapting their curriculum to taking down crucifixes and any other religious references.

After the bill passed easily in the Assembly in June, several amendments were added in the Senate to detail those conditions, and it was ready for vote last Thursday, the last real hurdle before it would go to Gov. Chris Christie for likely signature. If the bill had been signed, New Jersey would be one of just a half-dozen states with such a law.

The Budget Committee Blessing

The Senate's influential budget committee appeared to go along, with even its chairman, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), giving his blessing over his own misgivings about charter schools in general.

"I will vote yes, for now," Sarlo said.

But despite being posted for full Senate vote, it never came, as Lesniak said concerns were raised in the Democratic caucus about whether the measure faced the emergent need required for the immediate vote.

He indicated that some members said it should be included in a larger rewrite of the charter school law. A proposal is being shepherded in the Senate by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate’s education committee.

But Lesniak and others also have acknowledged that the Catholic church’s lack of support for the bill isn’t helping. "They are not interested in conversion," Lesniak said. "Something I think is short-sighted, absolutely."

Corwell, the longtime lobbyist for the Catholic schools, said he is neither for nor against the bill, but expressed a number of strong concerns and acknowledged that few, if any, parochial schools -- even those in peril of closing -- would seek to become charter schools instead.

"None of our schools would do that," he said. "Our goal if any our schools are to close is to get its students into another Catholic school, and a charter school is not a Catholic school under any circumstances."

The church has instead put its backing behind the OSA, a bill that would permit publicly funded scholarships for students attending private or public schools. Over the course of nearly a decade, that bill has seen its own fits and starts in the legislature, with many predicting now it will not reemerge until after the November elections.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) -- a primary sponsor of the measure in the Assembly -- said yesterday that the latest developments are no surprise. A number of charter school proposals in the legislature have hit their own hurdles in the last few months and left the state still with no improvements or changes at all to its 15-year-old charter law.

"There is still a slight hope," said Jasey about the conversion bill. "But the Senate does what the Senate does. We are still really disappointed that the Senate didn’t take any of these up in June."

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