In the roller coaster life of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday conceded the controversial school voucher bill is likely dead for the rest of the year.
Where the bill is headed next is less certain.
Christie in the latest of town hall meetings in Mahwah put the blame on Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for what he said was her refusal to post the bill for a vote. He claimed the votes were in place to pass the measure, along with his promise to sign it.
“Sheila will not post the bill, although there are votes in the Assembly and votes in the Senate to pass it,” Christie said. “The Senate president said he would post it and put it up for vote if the Assembly did so. But Sheila Oliver simply refuses to post the bill.”
“Bottom line, it is not going to happen this year,” Christie told a young man from Hazlet who asked about the program. “But hang in there … I am going to continue to push for it, and hopefully we can get Sheila Oliver to do the right thing and post that bill for the people of New Jersey.”
The concession was not surprising, as the bill that had gained committee approvals in both the Senate and Assembly had gained little traction in the past few months.
Still, advocates kept pressing, with small contingents of supporters descending on Trenton over the last several weeks to make their case in public meetings.
There remains a bill that is likely the best shot yet of passage, scaled way back from what advocates hoped but attracting a wide range of support in the Legislature.
The bill, sponsored by the Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader, would include seven pilot districts and serve a maximum of 20,000 students. It would provide scholarships, or vouchers, to low-income students to attend schools of their choice, funding through corporate contributions that would receive matching tax credits.
The proposal has been at various stages in the Legislature for the better part of a decade, once proposed to serve as many as 30 districts. At the same time, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, among others, has strenuously opposed it.
Still, ever since this latest version was filed in March, there was little action on it in the Legislature. Efforts to reach Greenwald yesterday were unsuccessful. Oliver would not respond to Christie’s comments, with her spokesman only re-issuing a statement from early May.
“We welcome him to come to the table and discuss a compromise that does not further threaten our public education system,” Oliver’s statement read. “If the governor thinks I'm the only one standing in the way of the bill, then I challenge him to get it through the Senate first."
To the claim that the votes were in place to pass the bill in the Assembly, the Assembly Democrats’ spokesman discounted it. “Gov. Christie does not speak for the New Jersey General Assembly,” said spokesman Tom Hester Jr.
Advocates for the bill said they were not giving up, even after a big push over the last two months that gave them a regular presence in the Statehouse, not to mention a couple of protests outside Oliver's and other legislators' district offices.
"We worked very hard, especially over the last six weeks, to bring a coalition together, and we are disappointed this didn't make it into the budget," said Amy Simon, communications director for Excellent Education for Everyone, the chief advocacy group behind OSA.
"But we will wind up the clock again, and keep working," Simon said. "We are not done, and this will happen in New Jersey."