Op Ed: The Facts Are These, OSA Makes Sense

Trapping students in failing schools ruins their lives. The Opportunity Scholarship Act can free them

The Opportunity Scholarship Act (S-1872/A-2810) gives students who meet the poverty criteria and live in a district with a chronically failing school the choice to attend another public school or a nonpublic school using a scholarship.

From the frenzied remarks of opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), it would appear that the sky is falling if relatively few students in the state are given the means to control their own educational destiny. Opponents raise a variety of complaints about OSA, as if saying them often enough would cause them, by some miracle, to become true.

But the facts are what the facts are. You may or may not like them, but whatever your perspective, they remain facts nonetheless.

So here are the facts:

Trapping children in failing schools ruins lives: theirs and those of the taxpayers. In spite of much time and money, these failing schools have been unable to reach children who live in poverty. Parents of these students and taxpayers are looking for a viable alternative that will educate the children and save money.

The fact is that urban nonpublic schools succeed well with poor children (see Religion and Academic Success by William Jeynes, professor of education at University of California Long Branch, 2003).

Undeniably, nonpublic schools succeed at lower cost.

The OSA will save taxpayers money. Even at current OSA scholarship levels of $8,000 for elementary schools and $11,000 for high schools, the cost per pupil is approximately 50 percent below that of public schools in these districts. Additional state money will return to the district for improved programs to help failing schools. If money is the answer, as opponents claim, then these schools will receive funds for students they do not teach.

Opponents of the OSA complain loudest about the fact that 25 percent of the scholarships are reserved for students in failing districts who already attend nonpublic schools. This complaint ignores the fact that, in these urban areas, most students in nonpublic schools are often just one paycheck away from becoming public school students.

The facts are that nonpublic school enrollment has been in precipitous decline (see Governor’s Study Commission on New Jersey’s Nonpublic Schools, pages 6-7). When students leave nonpublic schools, they become the responsibility of local school districts and the burden falls on local taxpayers.

OSA provides relief for children starved for education by establishing three regional Scholarship Agencies. Nonpublic schools will continue to make every effort to raise additional funds for scholarships, even in these difficult economic times.

One of the most deceptive arguments used against OSA is that it is wrong to offer scholarships to children in places like Camden, when these stressed municipalities have laid off police officers and fire fighters. The facts are that these funds are separate pools of tax money. School taxes do not fund law enforcement or fire departments, just as fire department and police budgets do not pay teacher salaries. As long as children are forced by compulsory education laws to attend schools that fail to educate them, crime will continue to increase, employment decrease and tax revenues shrivel. OSA is part of the solution to the intractable problems of our failed cities.

There are armies of straw men propped up by opponents of OSA. These include a complaint that the bill will increase the number of nonpublic school children getting transportation benefits. But many of these children are already bused to public school. All that changes is the destination. The bill contains no special provisions for transporting OSA students than those that already exist under N.J.S.A. 18A:39-1.

The straw men also include the accusation that nonpublic schools are unaccountable and supposedly do not meet the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. Chronically failing public schools, however, have been “accountable” to teach the Core Curriculum Content Standards. In spite of extensive funding, monitoring and evaluation, they still need dramatic improvement.

Nonpublic schools under OSA will align their curriculum with the Core Curriculum Content Standards (as most already do). While questioning the curriculum and national testing record of nonpublic schools, opponents want us to ignore the fact that one out of every six public high school juniors failed the math proficiency test while the cost of educating those students increased by 6.5 percent in 2009-2010. Year after year we spend more taxpayer money for fewer results.

Critics of OSA correctly argue for accountability. However, accountability of the public sector to itself has not always worked. OSA creates accountability of the most direct and most effective type: making schools accountable to parents for the education they provide their children. Accountability happens when parents can “vote with their feet” and choose a school that is effective in educating their children. Thus, OSA puts shoes on parents’ feet.

The hand-wringers opposing OSA talk as if the sky were falling, as though the $360 million dollars (over five years) that might be made available to these students (who are part of the public like every other child) will cause public schools and society to collapse. In a recent hearing, one opponent actually testified that the existence of democracy depends upon having public schools. But the facts are that democracy in America grew and flourished very nicely for the first 250 years our nation’s history before there were any public schools, when all education was private, primarily religious, and controlled directly by the parent.

The fact is the $360 million dollars is only one-third of 1 percent of what is expended on public schools in New Jersey, while nonpublic schools, according to the Governor’s Study Commission on New Jersey’s Nonpublic Schools (page 6) save New Jersey taxpayers $3.8 billion dollars annually. Pennsylvania has had an OSA-type program now for years, and the sky has not fallen.

OSA opponents argue that using the 2.5 times the national poverty level for OSA eligibility is a gift to some families, failing to understand the fact is it costs more to be poor than to be middle class. Disadvantages for the poor include traveling farther for goods and services, paying more for basic necessities, not having medical insurance and paying higher car insurance premiums (if they even have a car). With a family income of $55,000 (for a family of four at 2.5 times the poverty level), these families often cannot make ends meet. OSA opponents, who assume that $55,000 is a king’s ransom, reveal they do not understand or appreciate what it is to be poor in New Jersey.

The bottom line is: Do these scholarship programs work? Will they make a difference positively for the student who ends up in nonpublic school and those who end up in public school? The answer is, “Yes, they work.”

Research by Patrick Wolf of Brigham Young University (School Voucher Programs: What the Research Says about Parental School Choice) demonstrates that the cross-sectional studies (quoted widely by opponents of OSA because they allegedly show no academic benefit to vouchers) are fatally flawed. Wolf states that random-assignment studies are the “gold standard” of research and are the only research accepted by the U.S. Department of Education because of their rigor (Wolf, page 429).

Wolf’s research shows that 9 out of 10 of the random-assignment studies demonstrate that students do benefit substantially from these scholarship/voucher programs, especially in math and reading, with the greatest impact being on disadvantaged, minority children. Nonpublic schools have consistently graduated high numbers of students (a 98 percent average is common).

Opponents concerned for those left behind need to consider the findings in a column by
Adrienne Lu on philly.com who summarized the work of David Figlio, a professor of education and economics from Northwestern University who has studied Florida vouchers. Figlio noted that these students showed improved standardized test scores and that scores in public schools also rose.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act is one step of many needed to help children in chronically failing schools. Charter schools were another step. The opposition pleaded then for more time and more money, when charter schools began as they are now.

Would the opponents of a brighter future for these children send their own children to a chronically failing school? If not, they lose their credibility.

The facts are clear. The need is evident; the solution, apparent, proven and cheaper. It is time for action to save the future of these children. Turning our back on students who live in these districts with chronically failing schools is unacceptable. They need hope, now.