School Voucher Bill Proves Political Opposites Can Attract

The Opportunity Scholarship Act puts Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic power broker on the same stage and on the same page

Gov. Chris Christie being introduced by Angel Cordero, leader of Camden Education Resource Network, a non-profit alternative school.
In a stunning display of strange bedfellows, Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic power broker George Norcross took to a Camden graduation stage on Friday to call for the immediate passage of the tuition tax credit bill that would provide up to $12,000 vouchers for low-income students in select districts to attend private schools.

The odd pairing gave fresh speculation to the future of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), the long-debated school voucher bill. OSA has picked up new political momentum in the waning days of the legislative session this month.

But for the measure to actually pass, a few uncertainties and long-running battles remain to be resolved.

Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the group that has championed the bill for nearly a decade, has plans for what executive director Derrell Bradford called an “intensive” campaign in the lead-up to the legislature’s extended summer and fall election break.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has already started its counter-offensive, including a campaign against Democratic ally-turned-adversary, state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), the main sponsor of the bill.

Meanwhile, at the Camden graduation on Friday, speaker after speaker characterized Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver as the main obstacle blocking further movement on the bill. Graduates of the Camden Education Resource Network , a non-profit alternative school, were urged to call the Speakers office to press or her support.

The event was a virtual pep rally for the OSA, with yellow t-shirts emblazoned “Support NJOSA Now” handed out to attendees as they walked into the auditorium at Rutgers-Camden.

More Support Needed

Thus far the OSA has passed by two committees in the Senate and one in the Assembly but needs further support before it can come to vote in either house.

The next stop is likely before state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) and the Assembly budget committee he chairs. Greenwald said Sunday that if scaled back to a small pilot program, maybe as small as three or four districts, the OSA could have the necessary support.

In an interview this weekend, Greenwald several times mentioned three districts in particular: Camden, Passaic and Asbury Park. He said he would be open to others that had undeniable and pervasive records of low achievement.

However it ends up, he said it is a topic front and center on people’s minds.

“I am hesitant to say 30 days, given we have been talking about this and worked on this for years, but it is a focus,” Greenwald said.

The Camden Contingent

The Camden event was organized by Angel Cordero, the school’s leader and the leading voice in Camden for E3. Cordero was already close with Christie, who had attended a graduation two years before as a candidate and laid out much of his education reform agenda, including school vouchers.

But since then, Cordero had also made peace separately with Norcross, the insurance executive and South Jersey Democratic leader with whom he had long clashed in Camden city politics, including when Cordero ran for mayor in 2009.

“I had been fighting with him for many, many years as the political machine that he was,” Cordero said. “It was war.”

But he said that after the election, Cordero sat down with Norcross and realized their common interests.

“He said he was about two things: safer streets in Camden and fixing the public schools,” Cordero said. “And he said he not only supported OSA, but he would make sure it passed.”

So, after Norcross agreed to speak at the graduation, Cordero said Christie then approached him to attend again as well.

“I told him Norcross was the keynote speaker, and he said ‘OK,'” Cordero said. “It was an amazing day, with [acting education commissioner] Chris Cerf there, too, that was icing on the cake.”

Also on stage were all the leaders of E3, including founder Peter Denton and Bradford.

Bradford yesterday said the public meeting of arguably the state’s two most powerful political figures, one Republican, one Democratic, was an important, symbolic step that could make the difference in the long-debated bill.

“It was very important that both Christie and Norcross went on stage at the same time and made the call for OSA to pass in the next 30 days,” Bradford said. “We can help put the pieces together, but leadership will be what makes this happen.”

Fits and Starts

Those words have been spoken before, several times, and the OSA has seen more than its share of fits and starts. Over the last year, it has drawn it closer than ever to passage, but then it stalled over the details, with some supporters pushing for more students and districts to be included and others pressing for less. Even the choice of what districts are in and which are out has been rife with politics.

And there’s the NJEA, the state’s dominant teachers union, which is poised to pull out the stops against the measure. It already sent a message last month when it chose not to endorse Lesniak, the Union County senator, in his Democratic primary because of his sponsorship of OSA. And the union’s influence in the fall’s general elections remains a formidable consideration for any candidate voting for or against.

“OSA has been fast-tracked before, and the more people find out about it, it has been knocked down,” said Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesman. “The more people learn about it, the more they don’t like it, so we’ll do what we have in the past and make sure people find out what the bill really is.”

Baker said no formal campaign has yet been planned for the next month, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be ready if the bill gains momentum anew. “It won’t take long to get it up and running,” he said.