Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Wednesday that he opposed a bill to offer scholarships for New Jersey students to transfer out of failing public schools, but he left open the possibility that he would post it for a vote.
The proposal, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is a key piece of Gov. Christie's agenda to revamp public education and improve performance of children in low-performing urban districts. The measure has passed Senate and Assembly committees but awaits floor votes.
"It would be my call to post it," Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said during a meeting with The Inquirer's editorial board. "I wouldn't vote for it right now, and don't know what I'll do with it."
The legislation would create a pilot program intended to help low-income children in 13 school districts, including Camden. In exchange for tax credits, corporations could contribute money to send those students to private schools and public schools outside their district.
A quarter of the vouchers would go to students who live in those districts but already attend nonpublic schools, one of its more controversial provisions. Some critics feel the income levels permitted are too high.
Sweeney questioned where children would go, noting that the number of Catholic schools had been shrinking. He said he would prefer to see the state "get serious" with a real program for charter schools, though they aren't always the answer.
"I'm big on giving options," he said. "I think we're failing the kids in Camden right now because we're not providing enough options."
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), an advocacy group that staunchly supports the opportunity scholarships and school choice, said Sweeney's opinion on the act should not keep him from letting it go to a full Senate vote.
"The least it deserves is a vote," Bradford said, pointing out that the bill had come through two Senate committees, one unanimously and one with three Democratic votes.
Adam Bauer, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union), a sponsor, said: "Sen. Kean certainly hopes the Senate president, reservations aside, would allow the members to register their opinions. There are a lot of ways to get to 21 votes."
The maximum scholarship for elementary students would be $9,000 a year and $11,000 for high school.
The bill would result in the loss of $843 million in state revenue over the five years of the pilot, but that amount would be recouped through the aid not given to the sending districts for the scholarship students, according to Senate documents and the Office of Legislative Services. Remaining funding would be distributed among the sending districts.