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Two Decades On, Opportunity Scholarship Act Remains Moving Target

Advocates and opponents struggle to shape final bill and get it in front of entire legislature.

Yesterday, it was a rally in opposition to the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, although the sparse crowd in the Jersey City school auditorium made it more a polite gathering than a protest.

Today, advocates of the controversial tuition tax credit bill boast they will have 2,000 people on the Statehouse steps. But if history is any indication, the vast majority will be Catholic school students bused in for the day.

Either way, the people who really matter -- the legislators who may act on the school voucher bill -- are keeping notably quiet, even apparently among themselves.

"I haven't heard a thing," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the primary sponsor of the bill. "And you would think I would. One would hope, at least."

But others say negotiations remain active as to the multitude of details in the proposal.

"All I can say is it is getting to a better and better place," said state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), the primary Republican sponsor, who has been involved in those talks.

None of this is novel for a bill that has gone though multiple versions over its two-decade history, starting as a pure voucher proposal under former Gov. Christine Whitman and evolving into a tuition tax-credit pilot.

Under the latest version, low-income students in selected low-performing districts would be eligible for scholarships of up to $12,000 to attend outside schools, public or private. Those scholarships would be paid through a program funded by corporate contributions, which in turn would receive matching tax credits.

But while that bill has received at least one committee's approval in the Senate and Assembly, it appears to change by the week as sponsors seek to get it to a full vote of the legislature.

There is little question that Gov. Chris Christie would sign a final bill, saying it is one of his priorities. But the extent of any changes may play in that, too, since Christie has recently said he is open to compromise but only up to a point.

"I won't dismiss any compromise as out of hand," Christie said last month when asked specifically about a bill that would include only a handful of districts. "But I'm also not going to compromise my principles."

State Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the Assembly's budget committee and the incoming Assembly majority leader, has said he would prefer a small program of just a half-dozen districts. Others have said the question of whether existing private school students could qualify could be a deal-breaker. Another topic of debate is the cut-off point of what students would qualify as low-income.

Lesniak said yesterday that his only condition is that Elizabeth, his home district, be included. "After that, I will defer to what others want to get this bill passed," he said in an interview.

Greenwald and other Assembly leaders wouldn’t comment further yesterday, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), the linchpin as to whether the bill ever comes to vote.

Of course, that didn't prevent critics gathered at Jersey City's Franklin Williams Middle School yesterday from denouncing the legislature for even considering a vote, and repeat their claims that the bill is an undisguised effort to prop up private schools with public money.

"It is a backdoor way to privatize our schools, and legislators need to understand that," said state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), one of two legislators who attended and spoke briefly.

Still, Rice acknowledged afterward that the votes could be similar to those of the pension and health benefits bills that split the Democrats and their core constituencies -- including the public unions -- last summer.

"And just when we were trying to heal from that stuff," he said.

But only about 75 people attended the rally, leaving the impression that there were almost as many speakers and press as actual participants. Organizers said they had hoped for more, but also ran up against parent-teacher night at the school. Still, they said they refused to bus in students, like their adversaries, and more such rallies would come.

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