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Opinion: Teeny-Weeny Education Reform, Small Steps to Success in New Jersey

Now that Christie has wrung the bloat out of OSA, it may finally start making a difference to poor kids.

In 1994, Gov. Christie Whitman announced a plan, never endorsed by the Legislature, to offer publicly funded vouchers to private and parochial schools for children in Jersey City. Over the past 20 years, Whitman’s modest proposal has evolved into the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA).

In its grandest form, inscribed in Senate Bill 1872, OSA would provide $1 billion in vouchers for up to 40,000 kids over five years, paid for by corporations in exchange for tax credits. A slimmed-down (and superior) Assembly version, unveiled last year, limits eligibility to seven school districts: Newark, Camden, Elizabeth, Asbury Park, Lakewood, Passaic, and Orange.

Yet in spite of fierce efforts by lobbyists, OSA has never made it to the Statehouse floor and prospects remain dim. Gov. Chris Christie, hardly one to flinch from a fight, acknowledged this in last month’s budget address when, as part of his $89 billion school-aid package, he proposed the inclusion of $2 million for a one-year pilot program. It’s OSA writ small, barely enough to offer $10,000 vouchers to 200 poor kids.

In all, a grave disappointment to OSA advocates. Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), a primary sponsor of the Senate bill, criticized the governor for not taking “more decisive action” and taunted the pilot as “a teeny-weeny step.”

But Christie’s instincts on this concession are correct: the vast scale of the voucher bill is anathema to the way New Jersey approaches education reform.

The devolution of OSA has many fathers. Among them are general distrust of public programs that fund parochial schools, which confound our church/state separation ethos; the highly publicized wheeling and dealing of legislators over which districts get included in the program; and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver’s refusal to allow legislators to vote on the bill.

In addition, the NJEA (the state's primary teachers union), Education Law Center (the primary advocates for New Jersey's poor urban students), and others who swear by the immaculate (and mythical) dualism between private and public funding of our state education system, ran a well-organized campaign against the bill.

For these lobbyists, OSA became the hill to die on. Even NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano’s Romney-esque comment on the plight of the kids trapped in terrible schools who might have been offered a potential lifeline through the bill -- “Life’s not fair and I’m sorry about that” -- wasn’t enough to undermine the opposition.

OSA was just too big. After years of inside wrangling and pork-barrel politics, it had morphed from a carefully targeted plan into a lumbering behemoth, engorged by an untoward number of injections by special interest groups that range from Tea Partiers to religious school advocates.

According to the Senate bill, 25 percent of vouchers were to go to kids already in parochial schools, a bow in the direction of the Lakewood Orthodox Jewish lobby. (An analysis by Dr. Bruce Baker estimated that this would funnel as much as $67 million per year to Lakewood yeshivas.) Income eligibility was set at 250 percent of the poverty level, higher than other comparable programs. For example, President Obama’s universal preschool proposal for four-year-olds, first announced during his State of the Union speech in January, set income eligibility at 200 percent of the poverty level.

In New Jersey, we like our education reform in incremental sips -- teeny-weeny if you will. TEACHNJ, Senate Teresa Ruiz’s cautiously crafted tenure and evaluation bill, adds one year to tenure, incorporates an element of data to staff evaluations, and makes tenure conditional on classroom effectiveness. Seniority-based layoffs, or LIFO, that hoary anachronism, was left unchanged, despite piles of research that itemize the detrimental impact of LIFO on student achievement and staff morale. New Jersey, in fact, is one of only 12 states in the country that retains this policy.

Charter school expansion is slow and steady; nothing racy here. In 2009 there were 76 charter schools. Now there are 81, which serve about 25,000 children. (Another 20,000 kids are on waiting lists.)

Perhaps the best example of New Jersey’s propensity for incremental reform is the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, in which districts volunteer to accept students outside local boundaries. Like Christie’s svelte voucher proposal, it originated as a tightly girdled pilot. Each year a few more districts sign on as superintendents and board members recognize its benefits. Next year 6,000 kids will participate.

In his budget address, Christie called OSA-lite a “demonstration grant,” a signal to voucher proponents that there’s still hope for a more comprehensive bill, maybe something along the lines of the Assembly version. Is it teeny-weeny? Sure, but that’s how we do things around here.

Christie’s cautious proposal bushwhacks a narrow path forward for school choice advocates, while providing cover for unnerved legislators. Even Speaker Oliver says that the Assembly would consider a “scaled-down version” of OSA. That’s what he gave her. It’s very Jersey.

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