Troubled Opportunity Scholarship Act Still Hanging Fire In Trenton

Compromise appears triply hard to come by when it involves Democrats, Republicans and Gov. Christie

Depending on who’s talking, New Jersey’s school voucher bill looks to be at either an impasse or a potential breakthrough. And that’s from the bill’s two primary sponsors.

Either way, from the man who may matter most, it’s certainly not an issue going away anytime soon.

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday interrupted his budget signing ceremony to say that he still wants the legislature to act this summer on the Opportunity Scholarship Act, putting it among his priorities for the next few months.

“I am extraordinarily disappointed with the legislature’s failure to act on the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” Christie said. “It is an obscenity that kids remain in schools that are judged a failure year after year after year.”

But the bill’s fate remains very much in peril with the legislative session winding down, as its two prime sponsors acknowledged in the last two days that they have yet to forge a deal that would bring both critical Democratic votes and retain Republican ones.

“We came very close over the weekend in both houses,” said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) on Monday. “But the governor will not budge.” He was referring to Christie’s refusal to compromise on a scaled-down version of the program.

“At this point, we wait,” Lesniak said.

Guardedly Optimistic

State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), the Senate minority leader and co-sponsor of the measure, said he was more hopeful with the state budget now completed. He did not rule out agreement on a pilot program that would limit the initial number of districts involved.

“I’m optimistic now that we are beyond the budget, this will give us more chance to figure it out,” he said. “The good thing about this is over the course of the next month, I expect very significant progress.”

The sticking point appears the scope of the program. As proposed, the OSA would provide scholarship vouchers of $6,000 to $9,000 for low-income students in low-performing schools to attend another school, public or private.

The money would come through corporate contributions, which would be publicly financed through tax credits.

Lesniak’s and Kean’s initial bill would extend the scholarships to students attending more than 170 schools in 34 districts where, based on a formula, a majority of students have not passed the state’s achievement tests for consecutive years. A quarter of the scholarships would also be retained for low-income students already in non-public schools.

But trying to gain Democratic votes, Lesniak said he’d be willing to limit the number of districts participating, while keeping the same overall number of students. He initially said he’d allow individual legislators decide whether their districts were in or out. Both Christie and Kean have opposed such a compromise.

“I can’t understand why the governor won’t budge on this,” Lesniak said. “It’s the same number of kids. It’s not half a loaf. It’s a full loaf.”

Yesterday, Kean equivocated some and said he could support a pilot version, as long as the goal remains that it eventually apply to all eligible students, no matter where they live.

“I don’t want to signal middle ground yet,” he said. “I think the full number of schools is the end goal, where we should be.”

But he said there would likely be further deliberations in the weeks ahead, both in committee and among members. The bill is currently assigned to the Senate budget committee and Assembly’s commerce and economic development committee.

On the day when Christie signed a historic state budget that many called a clear political victory, Kean said he was pleased that the governor continues to press the scholarship bill among his priorities.

“There are four issues he wants to talk about, and this is one of them,” Kean said. “I’m very optimistic about his track record.”