Fine Print: Assembly’s Opportunity Scholarship Act Bill

School vouchers back on table with scaled down measure by Democratic leadership

What it is: The proposed bill, A-2830, is the latest version of a long-running proposal to create a system of publicly funded scholarships or vouchers for students to attend schools of their choice, public or private. Sponsored by state Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Lou Greenwald, both Camden County Democrats, the bill would limit the program to seven school districts and 20,000 students, the smallest number yet.

What it means: The proposal for the first time has in Greenwald a prime sponsor from the Democratic leadership team. Greenwald is the Assembly majority leader. That alone gives it the best chance yet in an Assembly that has been a formidable obstacle. Whether that’s enough to see it passed is another question.

The Senate version: A similar but more expansive version was filed earlier in the state Senate, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union).

Where they stand: The Assembly bill at this point is actually just a proposed bill, not yet formally introduced. That will come in the Assembly’s next regular session, which won’t be until May when both chambers return from budget break. It has yet to be posted for committee hearing.

Why seven districts? “I think seven districts is a rational number,” Greenwald said. “It is a number that identifies districts with a significant number of chronically failing schools, and I believe it brings the costs far more in line.”

Other key details:

  • The bill calls for a four-year pilot in which the state would provide matching tax credits to corporations that contribute to a scholarship program for students to attend outside schools.
  • It would only apply to students attending “chronically failing schools,“ as defined by their test scores, in seven districts: Newark, Camden, Trenton, Passaic, Lakewood, Asbury Park and Elizabeth.
  • Each scholarship would be for a maximum of $6,000 for K-8 and $9,000 for high school. Students will need to meet an income threshold to be eligible. The threshold is a household income of no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • The credits would be capped at $13.8 million the first year and escalate to $55.2 million in its fourth year. The number of scholarships will top at 2,000 in the first year and 8,000 by year four. Seventy percent will go to elementary schools.
  • A new state-appointed Opportunity Scholarship Board will oversee the program, including the selection of an organization to distribute the grants. The board must also ensure annual audits of the program, and an independent study by year four.
  • The bill appropriates $1.5 million the first year for the operation of the board.
  • Receiving schools: Schools receiving the students will face responsibilities as well. They will have to take the scholarships as full tuition payment, administer and report the results of state assessments for the applicable students, and agree to enroll the student for at least two years, barring a serious infraction. Sectarian schools must allow students to opt out of any religious instruction or activity.