Long Debated, Legislature Revives Talk of School Vouchers

New measure is scaled back to just a few districts, yet misses key backer

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden)
After a winter hiatus, a trimmed-down Opportunity Scholarship Act proposal is back in the legislature with a prominent new sponsor in the state Assembly but the loss of another in the Senate.

State Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden) yesterday said he filed a new bill that would include just seven districts as part of the pilot to provide scholarships — or vouchers — to low-income students to go to schools of their choice, public or private.

More notably, the second primary sponsor on the bill is state Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly majority leader who has said he would support a smaller pilot and now has his name attached to one.

“I am not a believer in vouchers [across the state], but I do believe in a few select communities where children are a prisoner of their own poverty and denied a right to an education,” Greenwald said yesterday.

The new Assembly bill comes a week after state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) filed a new version of the bill he has long sponsored but also in fewer districts. But it was missing a key sponsor, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the longtime and prominent backer of the bill who gave it key support on the Democratic side.

Lesniak yesterday said he dropped his sponsorship for a variety of reasons, including the closing by the Archdiocese of Newark of another prominent Catholic school in his hometown of Elizabeth. St. Patrick High School, the basketball powerhouse, might have been saved if a voucher bill passed, he said. The archdiocese had been a prominent backer of the long-debated bill.

“We asked them to keep it open for a year, and they turned their back on it,” said Lesniak. “Let’s just say there hasn’t been as much enthusiasm for the bill as there has been in the past.”

Lesniak would not elaborate on the other reasons his name was no longer on the bill, and he did not rule out coming back. “My enthusiasm for it has lost a lot of steam, but that’s not to say it can’t get reenergized,” he said.

Kean said last night he was hopeful Lesniak’s support would return. “He’ll be back,” Kean said. “It’s an important bill and we’ve worked together many a year on it. We’ll continue to work together.”

The personal and political dramas of who is in and who is out as supporters come as backers hope to revive the bill in a new session of the legislature. Gov. Chris Christie has continually called it one of his top education priorities, and yesterday a group of clergy leaders held an event in the Statehouse to press for its passage.

But for close to a decade, every time it appears to gain ground, the bill then suffers a setback and disappears from public view for a few months. It faces furious opposition, most notably from the New Jersey Education Association and other education groups that see it as an attack on public schools.

Last year, the bill won approval in another legislative committee, but it never could get posted for vote of the full Senate or Assembly. Even among backers, a big issue remained the size and scope of the bill, at times involving as many as 30 districts and last year more than a dozen.

The new versions seek to address that with a pilot half that size. Fuentes and Greenwald’s bill would include seven districts: Newark, Camden, Passaic, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Asbury Park and Orange. Kean includes those seven districts plus Perth Amboy.

“Seven is a rational number, and all are districts with significantly failing schools,” said Greenwald.

“We’re looking at lucky seven,” added Fuentes, although he said he was approaching legislators to add Paterson as well.

There are a couple of other changes from previous versions, including a new mechanism for accepting students who are currently enrolled in private schools by limiting it to those who would be changing schools anyway. Both bills would also cut back on the administrative costs of the program.

“I’m really optimistic,” said Kean of his bill’s prospects. “I think there is some great momentum in these bills.”

Greenwald wasn’t so sure, but said this may be a new start to the dialogue. “They still have a lot of work to do, but you can’t give them the opportunity without something to show people,” he said. “This is where that is.”