School Vouchers: Out of the Spotlight, Not Out of Mind

John Mooney | October 18, 2011 | Education
A slimmed-down bill -- and pilot program -- may resurface in Assembly during the lame duck session

Tenure reform and charter schools have dominated education politics of late in New Jersey, but the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is making a quiet resurgence in the halls of the Statehouse.

People on both sides of the contentious proposal to provide tax credits for privately subsidized scholarships to low-income students have said that a slimmed-down version of the bill has a good shot of coming back in the lame duck session after the Nov. 8 election.

None are putting odds on its passage as yet, and talk of its fall and rise is nothing new. The bill was said to be close to passage at the end of June, yet never came to vote or committee in the Assembly.

But even state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) — considered the OSA’s main obstacle at this point – was not ruling out its reappearance this year when contacted through the Assembly majority office yesterday.

A spokesman said Oliver would not specifically comment on its prospects, “other than reiterating her previous statements that she is interested in seeing a bill that provides a smaller pilot program for the most struggling school districts.”

That is close to the work that has been underway in the Assembly’s budget committee, the likeliest place the bill would surface. A Senate version has gained committee approval in that chamber, but faces its highest hurdles in the Assembly.

State Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the budget committee, would not speak to any deliberations, but repeated his own preference for a pilot program of “five or six districts,” with tight restrictions on who could participate and how results would be tracked.

“I feel it should be in chronically failing districts where families have no choices and where children are prisoners of their own poverty,” he said.

Greenwald listed among the likely districts Camden, Asbury Park, Passaic City, and Newark. He also repeated that he does not support opening up the scholarships, which could be as much as $12,000 each, to children already in private schools. He also opposes building in extra money to administer the program.

Another Democratic leader also backed off some long-time opposition. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said he remains opposed in concept.

“But if we had a pilot that only applied to a couple of districts like Newark and Camden, it would clearly be more reasonable,” he said.

A Central Issue

Others are keeping a close eye on developments, with the size of the program appearing to be the central issue. With other education reforms proposals before the legislature, questions have been raise about how — or if — the programs would all fit together.

Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly has said education reform will be his top priority of the lame duck session, including proposals for revamping how teacher tenure is granted and retained. Christie’s spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

But others are weighing in, with advocates on behalf of the OSA expressing optimism.

“We are continuing to be optimistic about the legislation’s chances,” said Norm Alworth, president of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a pro-school choice group that has led the voucher fight for more than a decade.

The issue of the program’s size is a critical one, he said. Previous versions of the bill have ranged from only a handful of districts to as many as 30 or more. The bill coming out of the Senate includes 13 districts.

“At the end of the day, we need a program of size and scope that will fill out the desire to have a true pilot,” Alworth said. “In order to measure results, it needs to be of sufficient size and scope.”

Critics, too, are saying they are hearing more talk about the bill, and expect a hard push during the lame duck session. But they said the concerns have not lessened about using public funds to prop up private schools.

“We have heard it is a scaled down version that takes out some of the issues that derailed it before,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association.

“You have to think they will push real hard, as they may never get this close again,” she said. “Of course it has life, of course it has legs, and we are taking it very, very seriously.”