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Opinion: Voucher Bills Fall Prey to False Advertising and Small Thinking

We still need a voucher bill that does one thing well --serves the poorest kids in the worst schools.

It didn't take long for school voucher advocates two file not one but two versions of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Last session's versions cleared committee before dying in the Democratic Assembly caucus.

I suppose the bills reflect some differences of opinion of their backers. Far more interesting is why and how each bill ultimately fails rather than fills its mission.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. introduced a bill that mimics last session’s effort to subsidize religious schools in the guise of helping students in failed public schools. His Democratic partner, veteran senator Ray Lesniak, is not on the bill, reportedly miffed by the closing of St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes’ bill (D-Camden), not yet formally introduced, drastically shifts the focus, expense, and purposes of vouchers.

The rhetoric in the “whereas” and findings section of both bills is identical. Both bills pledge that their only purpose is to give low-income students in “chronically failing schools” a lifeline to private schools. Both target Asbury Park, Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, and Passaic (Kean adds Perth Amboy).

The Kean billcontinues the false advertising of the voucher advocates.

There are four obvious reasons to doubt that voucher advocates are motivated primarily by the desire to help the poorest kids in the poorest schools escape to private schools. Consider the following:

  • They don't target the poor. By defining poverty at 2.5 times the federal poverty standard, families of five with a $67,525 annual would qualify. That’s very close to New Jersey’s median household income ($69,811). In the schools labeled “chronically failing” almost all the kids come from families that earn less than 1.85 times the standard. In Camden, for example, 84 percent of all students in its 26 failing schools are from families eligible for free or reduced lunches (the 1.85 ceiling).

  • They seek to give scholarships to kids who have never attended a “chronically failing” school. The bill is rigged to ensure that many, if not most, of the scholarships go to kids already enrolled in religious schools. In fact, there are not nearly enough private schools to serve even a small percentage of kids in failing public schools. For example, Camden has only six nonpublic schools but 10,888 students in chronically failing schools! Asbury Park has none. Newark’s five parochial elementary schools could serve only a handful of the 20,568 students in failed K-8 schools.

  • The Kean bill sneakily directs that unused scholarships go to students already attending nonpublic schools (if “the child would be eligible to enroll in a chronically failing school”). Worse, the nonpublic school does not have to be on the list of schools “eligible” to receive kids from lousy public schools. Most of the scholarships will go to those already enrolled in religious schools that are not open to public school scholarship students. Bruce Baker’s recent post documents that students in Lakewood and Passaic yeshivas would be the primary beneficiaries.

  • They would simultaneously raid the only tax source constitutionally dedicated to property tax relief (the income tax), by passing the bill to the state’s poorest school districts. Financing 35,000 scholarships over five years would cost $586.5 millions, each dollar of which comes out the resident district’s budget. Baker estimates that the Lakewood district bill could hit $67 million annually against state aid of $23 million.

Voucher advocates shed crocodile tears for students in the lowest-performing public schools. They would happily subsidize religious schools at the expense of students in the poorest public school districts.

By contrast, the Assembly voucher bill aims directly at kids in failing schools.

There are noticeable differences: the Fuentes bill defines “low-income” as 1.85 times the federal poverty standard, the ceiling to be eligible for reduced-price meals ($36,464 for that family of five). It leaves Perth Amboy off the list. The pilot lasts only four years, not five, and is limited to 20,000 students. The total cost is $138 million, 35 percent of the Kean cost, all of which is raised from the corporate business tax.

The big difference is that low-income students in “chronically failing schools” are the beneficiaries. If not all scholarships are taken, then students attending other schools in the targeted districts would be eligible. No currently-enrolled private school students are eligible.

Unlike the Kean bill, the Assembly bill connects kids in failed schools with nonpublic schools that are deemed “eligible” by the education commissioner. The means match the rhetoric.

Both bills trivialize the approval of eligible nonpublic schools and the evaluation of the voucher program.

The education commissioner is obligated under the proposed bills to approve a nonpublic school to receive voucher students if it has existed for five years and has a CPA audit verifying its financial viability, or, if it has opened in the last year as a subsidiary of such a school. He may approve a start-up school that writes out its intentions and strategy, and lists its facilities, faculty and trustees.

Neither bill requires an applicant school to demonstrate that it effectively educates students, wherever they are from or however poor they may be. There are no standards for documenting verifiable results of student achievement. There are no standards for faculty or administrators.

In high jumping, this would be called a “low bar.” It’s close to no bar at all.

The Kean bill fails to hold eligible schools accountable. Oh, they must give a test each September and administer state tests to its scholarship students alone. The results of these tests will be made available as long as there are more than ten students in each grade tested (an unlikely occurrence in most parochial schools).

The Fuentes version at least requires testing of all voucher students at the beginning and end of the school year, and requires all students in eligible schools to take the same state tests.

Lawmakers are not the best authors of credible evaluations, but at least they could lay out standards for reliability, validity, and consistency.

Without stronger and more concrete standards for nonpublic schools and for the evaluation of students and schools, any OSA launch is likely either to be a straight subsidy for religious schools (Kean) or a very minor experiment in a few places and schools (Fuentes).

Governor Christie wants a voucher law, any voucher law, to impress the right-wing, Tea Party Republicans across the country. It looks like his braggin’ rights are in the hands, once again, of the Assembly Democratic caucus.

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