OSA Continues to Be a Lightning Rod for Controversy

New advocate of school voucher bill -- with Walton Family financing -- joins the fray

Advocacy groups for and against the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) have begun to mobilize as talk gets louder that the controversial school voucher bill could come for legislative vote soon.

The legislature will return this week with its first meetings since the midterm election, with a range of education bills expected to be under debate in the coming weeks. But few draw the rancor of the OSA bill, a pilot program that would use state corporate tax credits to fund school vouchers for low-income students in a select number of districts.

And with that, a number of groups — both familiar and new — are preparing to say their piece on the topic, with protests and other public displays aimed to catch the legislature’s attention.

Maybe the newest to the fold is We Can Do Better New Jersey, a nonprofit coalition of Catholic school and other community leaders who have long had a voice but now are getting formally organized to promote the OSA.

The group is led by the Catholic diocese leaders in Paterson and Camden and formed last winter as an advocacy organization, but kept a relatively low profile. With close to $500,000 in funding from the Walton Family Foundation, among other donors, it is becoming more public and will cosponsor a rally on December 1 in Trenton to promote the OSA.

“We are solely focused on the education and mobilization part,” said John Eriksen, the Paterson diocese’s school superintendent and member of the governing board. “We thought in creating this that there was a chance to strengthen the overall coalition in favor of OSA.”

In addition to the Trenton rally, it will also conduct a media campaign about the OSA that includes broadcast and bus advertising, Eriksen said. And the public will surely see more of the Harvard-educated school leader who has been outspoken nationally in discussing the difficulties of falling enrollments in Catholic schools in general. The Paterson diocese has lost 10 schools in the last three years, he said.

But Eriksen said the OSA is not only about the Catholic schools. “Obviously this would help certain schools, but I see this as a civil rights issue,” he said.

The new group will join another stalwart of the voucher wars, Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), now in its 13th year. E3 is a cosponsor of the rally on December 1 and also continues media buys across the state, with funding as well from the Walton Foundation.

Norm Alworth, president of E3, said he’s pleased with the addition of the Eriksen’s group to put more feet on the ground at a time when the legislation may be closer than ever to passage.

“We are alive and well, doing better than ever and right in the thick of it in making sure this gets done,” Alworth said. “And it’s great to have as many groups as possible engaged to make sure it happens.”

But it’s not only the pro-OSA forces at work; there are voices to be heard on the other side, too. One of them is Save Our Schools New Jersey, a grassroots group that has become a leading voice against the state’s charter school law and the Christie administration’s push to expand charters in the state.

SOS NJ has been long been outspoken against the OSA, as well, and came out in force last winter for legislative hearings. “Frankly, it has been somewhat dormant since then,” said Deborah Cornavaca, an active organizer in East Brunswick.

But with an expectation that there could be a quick vote in December, it is already planning its own campaigns — albeit lower-cost — and aims to provide a counterweight to the pro-OSA rally on December 1.

“We will be looking at a more public showing as it is appropriate,” Cornavaca said. “We have heard about the rally on December 1, and we certainly don’t want that to be the last voice heard.”