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Christie's Proposed School Voucher Program At Latest Crossroads

Democrats claim Opportunity Scholarship Grants will never make it to the final budget, but can they deliver?

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

At $2 million, the Christie administration's proposed school voucher program is a very small piece of the $12.4 billion that the state projects it will spend on public education next year.

But the puny dollar amount belies the provocative and polarizing debate that the Opportunity Scholarship Grant has already kicked off, one that shows no sign of subsiding as the Senate budget committee nears the close of deliberations on Gov. Chris Christie’s $32.8 billion budget plan today.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Democratic majority leader, this weekend repeated earlier comments that she was convinced the Democrats would put an end to the pilot, which would provide $10,000 vouchers for low-income students to attend qualifying schools, public or private.

“We negotiate a budget, and when we take it out, the governor can’t put it back in,” she said yesterday. “I am of the firm conviction from both of our caucuses that we will remove it. I really believe it is dead.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the budget committee, last month said much the same thing: there were too many Democrats against it being part of an appropriations bill -- if any law at all.

“We are going to negotiate a budget, and there is strong Democratic opposition to including that in there,” Sarlo said. “It is hard to justify [paying for this] when you have some districts having a hard time surviving.”

Still, despite stiff opposition, the advocates aren’t giving up.

Bishop Reginald Jackson -- head of the state’s Black Ministers Council -- said Friday that he remain positive about its prospects, although he demurred when it came to providing specifics.

“I am optimistic it will stay in the budget,” said the long-time advocate of the voucher program. “I’m not guaranteeing anything, but I remain an optimist.”

Given the small amount of money at stake, the voucher program was always seen by some as a bargaining chip that the governor and Democratic leaders could add or subtract without much concern for its impact on the bottom line.

But the stakes are high for advocates and adversaries, who have long fought this battle and not likely to let this opportunity pass.

Christie has been pressing for vouchers since he first ran for governor, and it is the one piece of his education agenda still unfulfilled. If he makes it a priority in finishing up a budget -- and is willing to sacrifice elsewhere -- school vouchers may be back in play, some said.

It's not going to be easy. The New Jersey Education Association is starting to gear up for the fall gubernatorial and legislative campaign, and it is sure to keep a sharp eye on what it has always called a seminal issue.

It has argued that the latest proposal would be legally suspect if included in an annual budget act, rather than enacted through its own legislation.

“The governor's proposal isn't just bad policy, because vouchers do not lead to higher achievement while weakening public schools,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications chief. “It's also most likely unconstitutional as a budgetary maneuver.”

Meanwhile, the scholarship program is only one of several issues that are expected to come up today in the Senate committee’s deliberations.

A big question remains the Christie administration’s whopping increase in assessments to make districts pay a share of the state’s bonds for school construction grants.

While Christie has maintained that no district would see a cut in state aid in his next year’s budget -- which he has called largest state aid package in history -- once the assessment increases are factored in, 270 districts seeing less money than last year.

Christie’s office has said the assessments are separate from aid, but Sarlo last month said that was a “matter of semantics” and close to half of the districts are seeing a loss in state money.

“When you ask the PTA mom, it’s the total amount the schools get from the state, that’s what they care about,” Sarlo said.

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