Op-Ed: This Isn’t the Time to Add School Vouchers Into the Educational Mix

Lisa Wolff | January 20, 2015 | Opinion
NJ doesn't need another school-choice program; it needs one that works for all students

Lisa Wolff
Last Wednesday, NJ Spotlight reported Gov. Christie’s pitch for school vouchers, “let’s give parents and students more choices, not less.” A slight whiplash set in as I recalled the NJ Spotlight headline, from just five days prior: “School-Choice Opportunities Likely to Shrink Under New, Cash-Strapped State Budget.”

It is confusing. Is the state promoting more choice or shrinking it? Why would our governor suggest introducing yet another choice platform while concurrently cutting existing choice vehicles?

Indeed, state Education Commissioner David Hespe explained that after significant spending on interdistrict choice, including about $50 million last year, state officials are uncertain if it is helping those that need it most. Spoiler alert: It’s probably not.

The interdistrict choice concept is quite laudable. The devil, as always, is in the details of implementation.

It is safe to assume that families living in poverty in areas with poorly performing schools qualify as needy. The greatest concentration of those living in poverty, reside in highly populated municipalities.

Yet, for the 2014-2015 school year, the state distributed $4.6 million to Hunterdon County in choice aid, while at the same time allocating a comparatively paltry $176,000 to neighboring Mercer County. I am certain that officials realize that Mercer County houses two of the 10 most populated New Jersey municipalities (Trenton and Hamilton) while Hunterdon County does not even have one municipality in the top 100.

For the 2015-2016 school year, the state has budgeted for no new interdistrict choice seats for Mercer County. This means that no additional needy students will receive that choice opportunity for placement in Mercer County. Zero.

Basic economic theory dictates that prioritized spending will influence outcomes. If as suggested above, the intention is to help needy students, then shouldn’t the budget reflect that goal? Instead of jumping on the bandwagon for an additional choice program, the Department of Education should holistically consider all current choice programs, and expand those with evidence confirming success, to fix what is in place.

For example, charter schools are an important component in a comprehensive approach to choice, but are only a part of the solution. Nationally, charter schools have been proven to increase segregation while performing at about the same level as traditional public schools. On the other hand, magnet schools reduce racial isolation and have outperformed traditional public schools. Yet our state increased spending on the former while cutting on the latter. Where is the logic?

Is now the right time to add vouchers? I think not.

Until the state can prove success on existing choice initiatives, no consideration should be given to adding yet another program to our rolls.