School Vouchers Go and Stop in Trenton

Opportunity Scholarship Act debated in Senate, even if it can't make the agenda

Fans and critics of private school vouchers made a day of it at the Statehouse yesterday, as the prospects for the long-debated idea coming to New Jersey rose and fell as the day passed.

And in the end, when the committee rooms emptied by early evening, not much changed—leaving neither side quite satisfied.

The proposal comes out of a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) and Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), which was expected to get an airing before the Senate budget committee yesterday. It actually was never on the agenda, but you wouldn’t know it by all the talk and high-profile guests who showed up just in case.

Equal Representation

Gov. Chris Christie’s policy staff was well represented on the support side, as was the top brass of the New Jersey Education Association in the opposition. So was the head of the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke school equity litigation and sees the voucher bill as the next battleground.

“We don’t want to see it get out of here,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “We don’t want it to get any momentum. Who knows what would happen if it got out of committee.”

Supporters of the Opportunity Scholarship Act proposal have pressed for the Senate budget panel to consider the bill in the waning days of the Legislature’s session. It would open the way for a Senate vote early next week, and although the Assembly remains a big question mark, the idea of school vouchers in New Jersey would have moved further than its ever been after more than a decade of debate.

Scholarships for Low-Income Students

Under its proposed form, the bill would provide $6,000 to $9,000 scholarships to 20,000 low-income students in more than 170 low-performing schools to put toward schools of their choice, public or private. The scholarships would be funded through corporate contributions entitled to one-to-one tax credits.

The measure has passed one committee in the Senate, and Christie has demanded that it be on his desk before the Legislature goes home for summer. Lesniak, the primary driving force, has for the last several days worked both sides of the aisle to try to win the votes.

But Kean this week openly questioned some of his co-sponsor’s negotiations, and yesterday he confronted Lesniak in a Senate quorum. He afterward downplayed any trouble and said the two had come to “mutual agreement” on not diluting the bill. Lesniak chalked the moment to “my Polish emotions coming out.”

Dueling Press Conferences

Meanwhile, a coalition of education associations and advocacy groups held their own press conference across the hall, lining up speakers to oppose the bill and try to slow its momentum.

Their chief complaint was private school vouchers would drain money from public schools and leave students in schools that would be unaccountable to the public and potentially be far worse than the public schools they leave.

“We would urge this legislation not to even see the light of day or even be debated,” said Bill Holland, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

And that was the primary question for much of the next four hours, as the Senate Budget committee moved through a number of bills, including a proposed new cap on property tax levies, but never took up Senate bill 1872

A Wild Ride

During one of many breaks, NJEA executive director Vince Giordano came over to a school administrators’ lobbyist and reflected the mood in the room. “This is wild—I don’t think anyone knows what is going to happen next,” he said.

But by late afternoon, the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen, put the word out that it wouldn’t be this day—or maybe any day under his watch. Sarlo said in an interview that he remains against the bill, and only might consider a hearing in deference to Lesniak and other colleagues.

“I would consider giving it a hearing, but not for any type of vote,” he said.

That helped empty the room of the advocates and the last of a half-dozen NJEA lobbyists. “We’re appreciative that Senator Sarlo made sure this bill did not move a single inch further,” Sciarra said as people were packing up.

But Kean, the Republican senator who had been working his colleagues for much of the day, was less forgiving —although far from giving up.

“We’d been told there would be a vote, but the chairman decided otherwise,” he said. “But people will attribute all sorts of things when things move or not, but at the end of the day, there is bipartisan support and we’re all focused on mutual goals.“

Lesniak, who did not stick around, said he and Kean would work over the weekend on fine-tuning the bill and being ready for another try on Monday.

“I’m just very frustrated at everyone looking for an excuse not to vote or not to have to vote for this bill,” Lesniak said. “It’s happening both sides, Democrats and Republicans.”

“But whether he puts it to vote or he doesn’t, this isn’t going away,” he said.