Opinion: The OSA Con Game

Gordon MacInnes | March 14, 2011 | Opinion
Think the Opportunity Scholarship Act is going to help poor kids trapped in failing schools? Think again

New Jerseyans are about to be taken by a bait-and-switch scheme of such magnitude it deserves to be investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark or the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Why haven’t you heard of this scam? You have. It’s the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA).

Here’s the bait: Children from “poor families trapped in chronically failing schools.”

They’re the ones OSA sponsors talk up when they’re trying to sell a bill that could cost this bankrupt state somewhere between $360 million and $1.2 billion.

And here’s the switch: The bill is written to divert most of the funds to students from lower middleclass families who already attend private schools—mainly religious ones.

The bill is awaiting action in the Assembly Budget Committee, which has the best chance to amend the measure to reflect its sponsors’ rhetoric about poor kids attending 170 failing public schools in 13 districts.

In fact, if the legislature is motivated to support parochial schools that have been hospitable to poor children in poor neighborhoods regardless of religion for decades, then it can accomplish that goal without diverting hundreds of millions to private schools with no interest in kids from struggling public schools.

Four changes would render the bill consistent with the overheated rhetoric of its sponsors.

First, kill the provision that takes 25 percent of the money off the top and sends it to students who are currently enrolled in private schools.

It is clear from the selection of targeted districts that the bill’s sponsors seek to push millions into the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas in Lakewood and Passaic city. None of those schools are open to enrolling students from “chronically failing schools,” the purported beneficiaries of OSA.

Second, kill the provision that re-allocates any funds not going to kids from struggling public schools to those already enrolled in private schools.

Finding a school in a poor city neighborhood that is experienced and interested in educating struggling students is going to be tough. Translation: It is likely allocated funds will not be fully spent by the August 1 deadline. Thereafter, not one penny goes to the OSA poster kids.

If you’re inclined to doubt what I’m saying, consider this:

Take the three cities in which 56 percent of the 170 “chronically failing schools” are found: Newark, Camden and Paterson. Between them, there are only 12 parochial schools still open and no high schools in either Camden or Paterson. There are over 50,000 students in 96 failing schools in these three cities. The chances of many of them finding seats in nearby private schools are slim.

Third, to lessen the bill’s impact on the state treasury, reinstate the original vouchers: $6,000 for K-8 students; $9,000 for high school. In the budget committee, the representatives of the Catholic Conference testified that parochial school tuitions are below the original ceilings.

When asked why he supported increased payments, Sen. Tom Kean Jr. ( R.-Union) asserted that he wanted to encourage the state’s elite private schools to participate in OSA.

His reasoning was that Pingry, for example, which charges $32,000 tuition and enjoys an endowment of nearly $60 million, could use the savings from OSA to increase the diversity of its student body.

That is a laudable objective. But should a state that cannot support the police force in its most dangerous city charge taxpayers to subsidize it wealthiest private schools?

Fourth, the budget committee should cut the income ceiling from its current 250 percent of the federal poverty rate to the ceiling for the reduced lunch program, 185 percent.

At 250 percent a family of four could earn $55,125 a year and still receive a voucher. Ironically, that is about 10 percent higher than the average salary of a Lakewood public school teacher with seven years experience.

Maybe there would be an argument for the 250 percent ceiling if a lot of kids in the chronically failing schools would be left out.

But an analysis of the eligibility of the students attending schools in the targeted districts reveals that 85 percent of the students in Paterson; 88 percent in Camden; and 92 percent in Newark would be covered by the reduced lunch figure of 185 percent.

Plainly, the sponsors did not have poor children from poor schools in mind when they set the 250 percent as the limit. Nor did they have the taxpayers at heart.

It bears repeating: OSA is a classic bait-and-switch deal.

The bait to legislators and taxpayers is to do something for poor kids trapped in chronically failing public schools. The switch is use the money to help kids already going to private schools, many of which have absolutely no interest in ever admitting just one of those poor kids.

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