From Senator’s Old Neighborhood, Close-up View of School Voucher Bill

Legislators get down to deal-making as Gov. Christie presses for passage

It is the Elizabeth neighborhood where Raymond Lesniak grew up a half-century ago, the gritty Elizabethport section where the powerful Union County senator first attended a parochial elementary school and then the public high school.

Now, Elizabethport is home to the city’s two public schools in the bulls-eye of Lesniak’s controversial school voucher bill, both with high rates of students failing state achievement tests and years of state and federal warnings.

“That’s not surprising that they’re both in Elizabethport, and why we need to throw a lifeline to those families,” Lesniak said yesterday. “Now you know where my attitude comes from.”

Under his bill as it now stands and which is suddenly gaining momentum, low-income children at Mabel C. Holmes School and George Washington Elementary School No. 1, three blocks away, are among potentially thousands who could get $6,000 to $9,000 scholarship vouchers toward attending a school of their choice, public or private.

That sounded pretty good to Abeafa Amenyitor, as she picked up her three-year-old daughter from an after-school program at School No. 1 yesterday afternoon.

Taking classes to be a medical assistant herself, Amenyitor said she has liked the public school so far, and said she worried her daughter’s special needs may prevent a real choice in schools that could accommodate her.

But she also reflected a prevailing thought among parents interviewed yesterday in this city where the median per capita income is under $20,000 per year.

“Private school is always better than public, that’s where the best education is,” she said.

Legislators Ready to Act?

Others may beg to differ on Lesniak’s definition of lifeline, but whatever the term, his bill appears on the move, as it has shifted from lofty rhetoric to that time-honored stamp of real credibility in Trenton: actual negotiation and horse-trading.

Under the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, a state-run system of scholarships would be provided to low-income students, funded through corporate contributions that in turn would receive one-for-one tax credits.

After years of the proposal being blocked from even getting a hearing, Lesniak and others said several amendments are in the works that may ease the minds of legislators — virtually all of them fellow Democrats — whose votes have been slow in coming but will be necessary for the bill to pass. He said the new version could come before the Senate budget committee and then the full Senate as soon as next Monday.

“It may be imminent,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can go forward in the next week.”

Christie Leery of Deal-Making

Gov. Chris Christie’s has said passage is a priority, declaring Monday that he would not let the Legislature end its session until an approved bill was on his desk.

Yesterday, Christie said he was leery about any deal-making in the works, saying he didn’t know its details but that he feared “compromising it away to nothing.”

“I’m all for getting people on board, but if you gut the whole purpose of the program, what good is that?” Christie said at a Trenton event promoting his proposal to cap property taxes.

But Lesniak said any compromise would sustain the program as envisioned, just maybe starting it quite a bit smaller. Among the discussions, he said, would be reducing the number of districts from which students would be entitled to the scholarship vouchers.

Under the current bill, low-income students from 174 schools in more than 30 districts would qualify. The schools are picked through a formula as those where a majority of students fail the state’s tests in consecutive years.

Lesniak said a compromise could lessen that number of districts to fewer than 10, essentially allowing legislators to remove their home districts from consideration. He listed schools from Newark, Camden, Paterson and his hometown of Elizabeth as certainties to stay on the list, and said he’d like to include Lakewood, Asbury Park and Plainfield as well. Jersey City was not included, he said.

“If they don’t want to participate, they wouldn’t have to,” he said. “But the number of scholarships would stay the same. It would just be more concentrated in certain schools.”

Other provisions under negotiation would be new requirements that private schools accepting students be approved by the state, and another that districts not necessarily forfeit all their state funding for students who leave.

Whether that’s enough to get key legislators on board is still up for debate. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has yet to take a public stand, but he also has yet to block the measure from moving through committee.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) has been more openly critical about the potential cost to taxpayers, among other factors. When fully implemented in five years, the overall cost to the state in lost tax revenues would be $360 million.

Oliver yesterday put out a statement through a spokesman that cited the debate’s rising stakes and emotions:

“This is clearly an important issue with strong emotions demonstrated on all sides. Many legislators within the Assembly Democratic caucus have legitimate concerns regarding Sen. Lesniak’s proposed legislation. As with every issue, I am always open to hearing all arguments and I plan in the coming days to hear from all of the members on where they stand on this issue, but no decision has yet been made on this oft-changing legislative initiative.”

Critics Decry Timing

Critics are also gathering force to try to prevent the bill’s passage, arguing the timing couldn’t be worse when the legislature is about to adopt a state budget with more than a $1 billion in state aid cuts to public schools.

The Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke school equity litigation, reacted quickly to news that Lesniak was trying to make deals to win votes.

“The voucher bill is like Swiss cheese,” said Lauren Hill, an ELC program director, in a statement. “It has so many holes it can’t be fixed, no matter how hard and how many times the bill’s supporters try.

“It’s time for Legislators to ‘just say no’ and reject the use of scarce taxpayer dollars to subsidize private and religious schools without being held accountable to meet the State’s education standards,” she said.