Opinion: Scholarship Act Puts Strange Spin on ‘Opportunity’

Gordon MacInnes | August 23, 2010 | Opinion
Proposed voucher legislation redirects funds away from the very students who need help most

The Christie administration and the bipartisan sponsors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act say the legislation represents an effort to lend a hand to “low-income” students trapped in failed public schools and to mount a new “innovation” fund to repair the failed schools.

But in fact it’s just the misleadingly named New Jersey version of a private school voucher bill.

Put aside that the program would transfer $360 million — maybe more — from the state treasury to religious schools while public schools are losing hundreds of millions in state aid. Consider also what it says about “opportunity” to the 1.3 million public school students and their parents.

Failed public schools have dogged education reformers for almost a half-century. Even if we don’t know how to fix them, we know a lot about their characteristics. Most are found in very poor neighborhoods and are asked to educate concentrations of very poor children. If those children come from families where English is not spoken or read, the challenge is compounded.

One would hope that legislation that targets the poorest children in the worst neighborhoods would offer a reasonable chance for those students to receive a better education. Instead, the sponsors chose to concentrate on bailing out religious schools that operate in districts with at least one failed public school. In particular, the bill aims to assist the 67 yeshivas that serve the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood and the six in Passaic.

Here’s how it works: At least 25 percent of all funds may go to students who are already enrolled in nonpublic schools, as long as they meet the income requirements and there is at least one “chronically failing school” in the district. This emphasis raises several important questions:

First, if nonpublic schools are thought to be more effective at educating poor children, why subsidize students who are already enrolled in one? Presumably, their opportunity at a better education has already been realized.

Second, if nonpublic schools are already educating a significant number of very poor students, then why not set the income eligibility at a level that encourages very poor parents to apply? Instead, the bill sets the income at 2.5 times the federal poverty standard. This means that a New Jersey family of four can qualify with a household income of $55,125; a family of six can benefit with incomes of up to $73,824. No one would say that incomes at this level constitute extravagant wealth, but they are hardly those of desperately poor families. In fact, the median salary of a Lakewood teacher with seven years of experience is $50,296.

Put simply, if teachers in Lakewood were married with two children, more than half of them would be eligible for taxpayer-paid scholarships.

Third, if tax dollars are so scarce that state aid to public schools has been slashed by almost a billion dollars, why should taxpayers be asked to provide full scholarships to children from families that exceed even the generous income limits in the bill? The bill mandates that once a scholarship is granted — say, when a student is in third grade — that it be maintained through high school graduation, even if the student’s family income comes to exceed the ceiling. So, a family of four struggling to survive on unemployment benefits in the Great Recession would be subsidized even after one or both parents return to work.

Fourth, why should scholarship aid be targeted to a community of religious persons who have opted for a life of study and contemplation at the cost of working full time to support their families? Lakewood may be the only district in New Jersey where the poverty rate for white households is twice that of black and Latino households. Eighty-three percent of married white couples live in poverty; 68 percent of white families have one spouse working part-time or neither working at all.

Finally, by targeting aid to Lakewood, New Jersey taxpayers are supporting schools that are segregated by gender. This is the free choice of Lakewood families to make and it should be respected as such. But “respect” need not be converted to “encouragement” by way of taxpayer subsidies.

These questions cover only provisions governing 25 percent of the funds sought by the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Subsequent commentaries will focus on equally serious issues raised by the rest of the bill.