Two Decades in the Making, School Voucher Bill Clears Big Hurdle

Senate committee vote not just about voucher merits, but also recipients

State Sens. Thomas Kean Jr., left, and Raymond Lesniak, the prime sponsors of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, testify yesterday before Senate budget committee.
A key Senate committee yesterday voted for New Jersey’s first experiment with private school vouchers. That’s not a final verdict but it’s no small vote — and a bitterly fought one — for an effort literally two decades old.

The five-hour budget committee hearing ended with a suspense-filled vote after dark.

With a mix of Republican and Democratic support, the committee voted out the Opportunity Scholarship Act by an 8-5 tally. That cleared the way for its next vote before the full Senate and brought applause and hugs from much of the overflow crowd in the Statehouse.

But with much jockeying still ahead, including before the Assembly, behind the scenes has been a delicate balancing act of deciding exactly who would qualify for the vouchers and how much would they get.

The latest version of the bill would make New Jersey’s program among the more generous in the country, with vouchers, or scholarships, up to $8,000 for elementary and $11,000 for secondary students to attend schools of their choice. The vouchers would be paid for by corporate contributions that in turn would be matched by state tax credits.

As passed yesterday, the bill targets students attending low-performing schools in 13 districts and meeting income thresholds at two-and-a-half times the federal poverty levels. That would be roughly $50,000-60,000 a year, depending on the size of the family. Up to a quarter of them would also be reserved for those already in non-public schools.

With the bill also a centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda, proponents said it would apply to more than 80,000 students overall, from districts such as Camden, Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth. They also said the thresholds were in line with New Jersey’s high cost of living.

On the other side of the debate, opponents called the measure an escalating drain of public funds for private schools, citing a legislative staff report that said the program could cost the state $1 billion over five years in lost tax revenues.

A few of the parochial school leaders at the hearing said both the tuition and the income thresholds were higher than they had sought for their beleaguered schools.

They said the scholarship amounts would easily cover their tuition, which can dip as low as $4,000 for elementary school and $8,000 for high school. Previous versions of the bill had been a few thousand dollars lighter, at $6,000 for elementary and $9,000 for high schools.

But the school leaders weren’t complaining, either, and they and others said the proposal isn’t just about saving low-cost parochial schools.

“We didn’t propose the higher figures,” said George Corwell, associate director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, who has been part of the debate for more than 20 years. “Still, we didn’t want to quash the idea of bringing in other schools, too.”

Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), one of the prime sponsors of the measure, said yesterday that the scholarship amounts were designed to be generous enough to make them attractive to higher-cost schools. Independent school tuitions can go well into the tens of thousands of dollars, with some day schools topping $30,000.

“That was done in a way where the bill was not just looking at parochial education, but also how to deliver a quality education where others would enter the fray,” said Kean.

Income Thresholds

The income thresholds were also a point of discussion, he and others said, with the 250 percent of the federal poverty level chosen as a middle point among several comparable cut-offs.

For instance, the threshold for those receiving subsidized meals in public schools is as low as 135 percent of the federal poverty level. The state’s Family Care medical coverage program goes to families whose incomes are as high as 350 percent the federal poverty level.

“Look at where we are living, we’re a high-cost state,” Kean said. “We wanted to cover those who are struggling.”

But others took some jabs at the so-called low-income thresholds, saying they would actually cover many public employees — including those in Christie’s crosshairs of late.

“That means a family with three children would qualify at $64,000,” said Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union, which has led the opposition to the measure. “That’s about the average salary of teachers in New Jersey, who Gov. Christie has claimed are overpaid.”