In education circles, one of the more notable parts of Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address on Tuesday was something he didn’t mention: school vouchers.
For one of the first times in any of his major addresses that have highlighted his signature education agenda, Christie did not press for the state to adopt a form of school vouchers, whether through tax credits or other means.
He hinted at the idea, saying that students in so-called “failing” schools should be given the opportunities to go elsewhere. But he dropped it at that. There was nothing about the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, the most notable voucher legislation of the last decade, and nothing about private school options at all.
And it didn’t go unnoticed.
”Maybe it was just something he didn’t push for with everything else that is going on,” said the Rev. Reginald Jackson, the church leader who has been arguably the state’s biggest advocate of vouchers.
Of course, Jackson was alluding to the brewing scandal over the involvement of Christie’s staff in the closures of George Washington Bridge commuter lanes as apparent political payback, an issue that has gripped Trenton politics.
“We will have to see how that plays out,” Jackson said in an interview yesterday. “A lot is up in the air right now.”
But Jackson and others were among the first to acknowledge that any notion of vouchers in New Jersey, in whatever form, is on life support right now.
The Legislature has come close a few times with various proposals for pilot programs ranging from a couple of districts to as many as 30 districts. The governor tried to include vouchers in his state budget last year as well, allotting $2 million. But each time, the voucher movement has fallen short.
Meanwhile, the organizations promoting the voucher cause have quieted, especially Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the preeminent group founded by South Jersey businessman Peter Denton. Jackson’s wife, Christy Davis Jackson, most recently led the group, but he said she left in the last year and that the organization has “downsized.”
One of the bigger advocates on the Democratic side said the idea of vouchers has likely run its course, at least for now.
“The way it has been packaged, it may not be able to move forward,” said state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Camden). “I don’t think it is the sentiment of a majority of my party to move forward on it as it is constituted.”
Singleton said he hoped that other measures still had momentum, including Christie’s own proposals in the State of the State to expand the school day and year.
“I don’t know if (vouchers) is dead in the governor’s mind, but there are still those of us who think there certainly need to be more opportunities afforded these children,” Singleton said.
On the GOP side, state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) said he was not giving up hope and that a new bill has been filed for the 2014 session. The bill calls for eight districts to be included in a five-year pilot, with 10,000 low-income students receiving scholarships of up to $9,000 each to attend schools of their choice.
“(Christie) didn't mention it directly, but he used all the appropriate language to very strongly suggest that OSA is part of the solution,” Kean said in an email yesterday.
Christie himself wasn’t showing his hand, as his office yesterday didn’t answer follow-up questions asking about the status of the school-voucher proposal.
Some others said they were ready to declare in dead.
“Stick a fork in it,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), also once a main proponent who abandoned the cause a year ago.
“The movement became political and partisan, and that’s what killed it,” he said. “I’ve moved on to look at other ways that we can reach the same goal.”
But Jackson said he remained optimistic -- once the governor is willing to press it. Jackson said that, in a meeting with religious leaders in November, Christie maintained that he remained behind the idea.
“The only way this will pass is if he insists he wants this to happen, and he is willing to use his political capital,” Jackson said yesterday. “If he doesn’t, I am realistic enough to know that this won’t go anywhere.”