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Christie backs school choice plan

Students in underperforming public schools would get money to attend private school under a proposed bill the governor favors.

In this photo  taken March 16, 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie  speaks to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. (AP Photo/Asbury Park Press, Thomas P. Costello)
In this photo taken March 16, 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. (AP Photo/Asbury Park Press, Thomas P. Costello)Read more

For years, school-choice advocates in New Jersey have pushed for public school students to be allowed to attend private schools through voucherlike programs.

With Gov. Christie now in office, those advocates have their best chance in recent years, although they still face a considerable battle against those who say such programs would hurt the public schools and the students left behind. Christie supports this legislation, according to his spokesman.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union) are proposing a five-year pilot program, roughly modeled on a similar program in Pennsylvania, under which low-income students in "chronically failing" public schools would be able to apply for scholarships to attend private schools, including parochial schools, or other public schools. The scholarships would be funded by private corporations, who would in turn receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits.

The program, which has been proposed for introduction in the Legislature, defines chronically failing public schools as those where, for the past two years, 40 percent or more of students scored "partially proficient" - the lowest score possible - in both language arts and math, or 65 percent or more of students scored partially proficient in either subject.

Two hundred and five public schools statewide (including charter schools) - or 8 percent - meet the criteria, including 24 in Camden, 42 in Newark, and 25 in Paterson. A handful of schools in Burlington and Gloucester Counties also meet the criteria.

The bill also would establish a competitive grant process, through which any of the so-called chronically failing public schools could compete for grants funded by the state.

Lesniak said the bill would "reduce class sizes, provide more choices to students in the state's lowest-performing schools, and spur the innovation necessary to turn around these same schools."

Kean, who has sponsored similar legislation in recent years, said the Opportunity Scholarship Act would "help ensure that more children in the state have the fullest opportunity to achieve their full potential."

The Lesniak-Kean bill has the support of an unusual combination of Republicans and Democrats. Among its supporters is Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a school-choice advocacy group cofounded by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, as well as Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the influential Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey.

"This bill will expand school choice for kids in our worst schools," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of E3. "It will spur innovation in low-performing schools and it will save some money."

But opponents argue the proposal is nothing more than a backdoor voucher program.

Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), who as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee has blocked previous versions of the bill, said the state cannot afford to give up any more revenue at a time when it is already struggling to pay its bills.

"It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck. It's a duck," Turner said. "Instead of trying to help improve the public schools, this is going to help them to deteriorate even further."

Among the local school districts that stand to lose students - and state aid - if the legislation is passed is Camden.

"Generally speaking, my question is: How does this help the public schools become better?" said Camden school board member Jose Delgado. "I think the legislators and all of us should be talking about issues related to enhancing public schools, not providing a lifeline to a small minority of students."

Delgado said the district was receiving $15 million less in state funding because of charter schools, and that this legislation would direct even more state aid out of the public schools.

He also objects to public money being used to support religious institutions.

"Where would that money usually go? It's money that's not going to the public coffers. You're intercepting it before it gets there," he said. "It's a nice technique, but it doesn't really hold water with me."

The New Jersey Education Association takes a similar position on the legislation.

"We're still opposed to vouchers and this is a voucher bill," said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker. "These are taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for public schools."

Under the legislation, the contributions for scholarships would be capped at $24 million in the first year of the pilot program, increasing to $120 million in the fifth year.

Lesniak said the bill will go through the Senate Economic Growth Committee, which he chairs.

He says the program would save taxpayers money because it would help keep private schools open.

"In the past 10 years, 40,000 nonpublic school students have returned to the public school system as a result of parochial school closings, costing New Jersey taxpayers in the neighborhood of $400 to $800 million in the current fiscal year," Lesniak said.

He said that in one year, the pilot program would save an estimated $40-$80 million.

"But the tax dollars saved are not what drives this legislation," Lesniak said. "It's the opportunity for a quality education that the children from poor families are not getting from the chronically failing schools they currently must attend that is its raison d'être."