Despite coming close to being passed on occasion, a school voucher program is the one major piece of Gov. Chris Christie's education agenda that he's never been able to push through -- unlike tenure reform, charter schools, and performance pay for teachers.
Now Christie is making one more run at vouchers in his fourth budget, and his proposal for a modest $2 million pilot is likely to grab the headlines and spark the loudest debate -- in an education budget nearing $12.4 billion.
The biggest chunk of change is state aid to schools, an $8.9 billion package that Christie wants to boost by 1 percent next year. That translates into a small bump for about two-thirds of New Jersey's school districts, with the balance seeing flat funding and none being cut, administration officials said.
A small fraction of that total, Christie's $2 million “Opportunity Scholarship Grants” program is a far lighter version of the school voucher proposal he backed in 2010, a program that would use corporate tax credits to provide close to $1 billion in vouchers for up to 40,000 students over five years. Almost 20 years in the making, that bill went through many iterations and got close to floor votes before ultimately stalling.
Just how far will today's $2 million go? It's enough to award $10,000 vouchers to 200 low-income students in the lowest-performing schools in the state, giving them the opportunity to attend a public or private school outside their district.
“These grants will show that choice can work, even -- indeed, especially -- in some of our most underperforming school districts,” Christie said. “I have been fighting for three years to end the abandonment of these children and their families. Today, that fight continues.”
Supporters of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act yesterday applauded the governor for staying the course one more time.
“It’s a start, it’s a very important start,” said state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), prime sponsor of the OSA bill in the senate. “It adds some real value to the effort we have been making.”
And even some Democratic leaders, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), did not dismiss vouchers out of hand.
“He tagged on a word that I liked very much, a pilot,” she said in an interview. “I think with a pilot, you find out how it works, what kinds of schools parents choose. I’m interesting in hearing what he has to offer.”
Oliver said one question she had was whether the program would need a separate legislative bill, and whether that would be ready in time for the program to start in the fall.
“The challenge to him is if he wants to see it operationalized in the fall of 2013, we have to see the details of the proposal he is putting on the table,” she said.
Some unexpected dissent came from former backers, who said the proposed program was so small as to be almost insignificant. State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), maybe the most outspoken sponsor of the original bill, called it the “teeny, teeny, teeny OSA.”
“Urban education needs a huge facelift, but OSA did not have enough support,” Lesniak said before the budget address. “But this is too small a model to have an impact. I imagine it will get support, only because it is so minimal in nature.”
State Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly majority leader, also decried the size of the proposal. He had been among those supporting a small pilot, but not this small, he said.
“I have always said this should be a pilot,” Greenwald said. “But I think he has gone too far the other way. Two million dollars, what does it get you?”
Nonetheless, the proposed pilot will surely face a fight, if only because it opens the door to a bigger program.
State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said he would continue to oppose it, no matter what size it is.
“My gut says it won’t pass,” he predicted. “I think people will recognize it for what it is, a foot in the water [for vouchers].”
The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has largely led the charge against vouchers for the past two decades, and it didn’t sound like it was giving up now.
“There is no indication you can do this through the budget process, and given the legislature has shown no interest in this issue, we don’t think it will happen now,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA communications director.
“It’s the same thing in a different package,” he said. “Nothing has changed, it’s still bad policy.”
School vouchers were just on issue in yesterday's budget, with many districts waiting anxiously to see what -- if any -- new aid they will get under the governor’s proposal.
The district-by-district breakdown will not come out until Thursday, but officials said 378 districts would get at least some additional money. With none seeing cuts, that means flat funding for about 200 districts.
Exactly which districts get what will determine the next line of debate, since the administration has been adjusting the School Funding Reform Act to at least reduce some of the extra aid for the districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk kids.
The Democrat-led Legislature has twice rejected those changes in the formula, most recently in a joint resolution demanding revisions, but the administration is apparently calling its bluff.
When asked specifically about the administration’s response to that legislative opposition, state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff said simply: “We still feel that [the changes] make fiscal and educational sense . . . We’ll see how it goes.”
Democratic leaders said they will need to review the district breakdowns before determining how far they will take that fight.
“We’ll see where it falls,” said state Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly budget committee. “This is obviously a big issue for us, because I thought we sent a loud and clear message [about changes to the SFRA], but we’ll have to see.”
Advocates, however, said that flat-funding and even a small increase for poor districts is the equivalent of cuts.
“The very minimal increase for some districts, and flat funding for many others, means another year of cuts in programs, staff and services that are needed by our students,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.
“The governor's aid proposal does almost nothing to meet the needs of students in hundreds of underfunded schools throughout the state,” he said.
There will likely be some other points of discussion in the coming months of budget deliberations:
The budget will include a new Education Innovation Fund, with the first installment of $5 million in a grant program that Christie last year said could eventually total $50 million. Details to come, but Christie said it would be targeted to expanded use of technology in schools.
“Technology has transformed every other industry in America, to all of our great benefit. Let’s make sure it transforms education as well, for the better,” he said.
Christie has also proposed adding state funds for new charter schools, as well as the expansion of interdistrict school choice, which is expected to have 6,000 participants next fall in 107 districts. That total will go up close to 50 percent, from $33.1 million to $49.1 million.
Funding for extraordinary special education is expected to hold at $162.7 million, while the administration is also seeks to raise some of the thresholds for when it starts paying.