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Opposition Muted as Christie’s School-Voucher Pilot Makes Public Debut

Scholarships up to $10,000 would let 200 low-income students switch to public or private schools elsewhere.

Chris Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education.
Credit: Amanda Brown
Chris Cerf, New Jersey Commissioner of Education.

There were plenty of questions but little outright opposition as Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed school-vouchers program got its first public airing yesterday.

The controversial issue was a prime topic as the Assembly budget committee held a hearing on Christie’s education budget for fiscal 2014. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified for close to five hours on a range of topics.

Christie’s proposed $97 million increase in state aid also got plenty of attention, especially after recent revelations that any increases for districts will be blunted by fees charged by the state for school-construction grants.

In the end, 267 districts – close to half of all those statewide -- will see net losses in the money they will receive from the state next year, after the assessments are factored in, Cerf confirmed yesterday.

But much of the attention yesterday was focused on how the committee’s Democrats would react to Christie’s plans for the Opportunity Scholarship Demonstration Grants, which in its first year would give “scholarships” up to $10,000 to 200 low-income students to attend outside schools, including private ones.

While small, it would be the first school-voucher program in the state, after more than 20 years of debate dating back through the terms of five governors.

Led by the committee’s chairman, state Assemblyman Vincent Pietro (D-Hudson), Democrats had plenty of questions about the plan yesterday, and there were a few new developments.

For instance, Cerf said that the department had started to develop the plan for the program to be ready to accept students for the fall, if approved by the Legislature, including reviewing both the schools that students could leave and those they could attend.

The program would only apply to low-income students attending the state’s lowest-performing schools. Cerf told the legislators that only a few districts would likely be included initially, adding afterward that he had yet to decide which districts will take part.

He also said the other schools students could choose to attend would be reviewed for a number of factors, including admissions policies and what he called evidence of academic success and viability.

“I don’t want these to be fly-by-night schools, but have a demonstrated track record of success,” Cerf said.

Once the program starts, the schools accepting voucher students would continue to be evaluated on a number of other measures, Cerf said, including parent satisfaction, retention of students, and academic progress for students, although there is no requirement as yet for testing in these schools.

“Academic progress is absolutely an essential measure,” he said.

State Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer) also questioned Cerf, but focused more on its guidelines than on whether it should happen at all.

“If we are going to be moving in this direction, we need to move very slowly and surgically, and we need to have data,” she said.

That’s not to say the program is all but approved, some Democrats said afterward, pointing out that this is only the beginning of the budget process and that an appropriation like this will likely be part of the final negotiations between the Christie administration and the Legislature in June.

And in the past, as larger school-voucher programs have been proposed as separate legislation, the Democrats’ caucus in the Assembly has yet to generate the votes needed for passage, they noted.

“I still find it hard to see this in the budget something that has been legislation that hasn’t passed,” said Pietro after the meeting. “I’m not a big fan of it, I have my reservations.

“I’m not sold on it,” he said, “and I would venture to say it would not get a majority in our caucus.”

Several lobbyists for the state’s most influential teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, attended the hearing. The union’s spokesman said the union will not let up in fighting vouchers, which it has opposed since they were first proposed, even if the proposed program is only a fraction of the size of previous plans.

“When people see pilot, it may calm them down a little, but vouchers are still vouchers,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. “We will continue to talk and work with people and be as aggressive as we need to be.”

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