It didn’t take long for school voucher advocates two file not one but two versions of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Last session’s versions cleared committee before dying in the Democratic Assembly caucus.
I suppose the bills reflect some differences of opinion of their backers. Far more interesting is why and how each bill ultimately fails rather than fills its mission.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. introduced a bill that mimics last session’s effort to subsidize religious schools in the guise of helping students in failed public schools. His Democratic partner, veteran senator Ray Lesniak, is not on the bill, reportedly miffed by the closing of St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes’ bill (D-Camden), not yet formally introduced, drastically shifts the focus, expense, and purposes of vouchers.
The rhetoric in the “whereas” and findings section of both bills is identical. Both bills pledge that their only purpose is to give low-income students in “chronically failing schools” a lifeline to private schools. Both target Asbury Park, Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, and Passaic (Kean adds Perth Amboy).
The Kean billcontinues the false advertising of the voucher advocates.
There are four obvious reasons to doubt that voucher advocates are motivated primarily by the desire to help the poorest kids in the poorest schools escape to private schools. Consider the following:
Voucher advocates shed crocodile tears for students in the lowest-performing public schools. They would happily subsidize religious schools at the expense of students in the poorest public school districts.
By contrast, the Assembly voucher bill aims directly at kids in failing schools.
There are noticeable differences: the Fuentes bill defines “low-income” as 1.85 times the federal poverty standard, the ceiling to be eligible for reduced-price meals ($36,464 for that family of five). It leaves Perth Amboy off the list. The pilot lasts only four years, not five, and is limited to 20,000 students. The total cost is $138 million, 35 percent of the Kean cost, all of which is raised from the corporate business tax.
The big difference is that low-income students in “chronically failing schools” are the beneficiaries. If not all scholarships are taken, then students attending other schools in the targeted districts would be eligible. No currently-enrolled private school students are eligible.
Unlike the Kean bill, the Assembly bill connects kids in failed schools with nonpublic schools that are deemed “eligible” by the education commissioner. The means match the rhetoric.
Both bills trivialize the approval of eligible nonpublic schools and the evaluation of the voucher program.
The education commissioner is obligated under the proposed bills to approve a nonpublic school to receive voucher students if it has existed for five years and has a CPA audit verifying its financial viability, or, if it has opened in the last year as a subsidiary of such a school. He may approve a start-up school that writes out its intentions and strategy, and lists its facilities, faculty and trustees.
Neither bill requires an applicant school to demonstrate that it effectively educates students, wherever they are from or however poor they may be. There are no standards for documenting verifiable results of student achievement. There are no standards for faculty or administrators.
In high jumping, this would be called a “low bar.” It’s close to no bar at all.
The Kean bill fails to hold eligible schools accountable. Oh, they must give a test each September and administer state tests to its scholarship students alone. The results of these tests will be made available as long as there are more than ten students in each grade tested (an unlikely occurrence in most parochial schools).
The Fuentes version at least requires testing of all voucher students at the beginning and end of the school year, and requires all students in eligible schools to take the same state tests.
Lawmakers are not the best authors of credible evaluations, but at least they could lay out standards for reliability, validity, and consistency.
Without stronger and more concrete standards for nonpublic schools and for the evaluation of students and schools, any OSA launch is likely either to be a straight subsidy for religious schools (Kean) or a very minor experiment in a few places and schools (Fuentes).
Governor Christie wants a voucher law, any voucher law, to impress the right-wing, Tea Party Republicans across the country. It looks like his braggin’ rights are in the hands, once again, of the Assembly Democratic caucus.