LinkWe still need a voucher bill that does one thing well --serves the poorest kids in the worst schools
By Gordon MacInnes
, March 26, 2012
It didn't take long for school voucher advocates two file not one but two versions of the Opportunity 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 bill
continues 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:
They don't target the poor. By defining poverty at 2.5 times the federal poverty standard, families of five with a $67,525 annual would qualify. That’s very close to New Jersey’s median household income ($69,811). In the schools labeled “chronically failing” almost all the kids come from families that earn less than 1.85 times the standard. In Camden, for example, 84 percent of all students in its 26 failing schools are from families eligible for free or reduced lunches (the 1.85 ceiling).
They seek to give scholarships to kids who have never attended a “chronically failing” school. The bill is rigged to ensure that many, if not most, of the scholarships go to kids already enrolled in religious schools. In fact, there are not nearly enough private schools to serve even a small percentage of kids in failing public schools. For example, Camden has only six nonpublic schools but 10,888 students in chronically failing schools! Asbury Park has none. Newark’s five parochial elementary schools could serve only a handful of the 20,568 students in failed K-8 schools.
The Kean bill sneakily directs that unused scholarships go to students already attending nonpublic schools (if “the child would be eligible to enroll in a chronically failing school”). Worse, the nonpublic school does not have to be on the list of schools “eligible” to receive kids from lousy public schools. Most of the scholarships will go to those already enrolled in religious schools that are not open to public school scholarship students. Bruce Baker’s recent post documents that students in Lakewood and Passaic yeshivas would be the primary beneficiaries.
They would simultaneously raid the only tax source constitutionally dedicated to property tax relief (the income tax), by passing the bill to the state’s poorest school districts. Financing 35,000 scholarships over five years would cost $586.5 millions, each dollar of which comes out the resident district’s budget. Baker estimates that the Lakewood district bill could hit $67 million annually against state aid of $23 million.
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.
Gordon MacInnes is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York and previously was a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He served as the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education and was a member of the New Jersey State Senate and General Assembly. MacInnes also directed the New Jersey Network and was the first director of the Fund for New Jersey. He lives in Morristown.
MONDAY, MARCH 5, 2012
GOVERNOR Christie is feeling pretty good about school reform. First, he succeeded in demonizing teacher unions, then he got reasonable people to buy into his school voucher program. Now he has made his nationwide pitch on "Morning Joe," the popular MSNBC show that last Friday aired live from Fort Lee
High School and devoted much attention to the sort of reforms Christie envisions for New Jersey.
We readily support some of the governor's ideas. He is right, for example, in seeking a more streamlined and more efficient approach to teacher tenure. For too long, too many ineffective teachers in New Jersey have been allowed to linger on, year after year, in failing classrooms.But we are troubled by the governor's voucher plan, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give companies tax credits to pay private or parochial school tuition for students in a handful of pilot distric
ts. Leaders of the teachers' unions, according to the governor, "have made it very clear to me and to the Legislature that it is an unacceptable alternative that they will fight every way they can — all vouchers," Christie said.
First, just because the idea is opposed by teachers' unions — the governor's sworn enemies, politically — doesn't make it good education policy. The voucher plan may sound promising on the surface, but it's flawed.
We are disturbed by the thought of tax dollars going to pay for a child's private education. In the case of those with religious affiliation, we see a violation of the separation of church and state. Finally, it stands to reason that money taken from state education coffers will, in one way or another, hurt public schools.
We might not have all the answers concerning elementary and secondary education, but we do know that the problems are widespread and entrenched, and too complex for sound bites. The war of words between the governor and the unions is counterproductive, a sideshow that must end if we are ever to see any constructive dialogue on the matter of improving public schools.
Link(This report shows the direction the debate can take)
Saturday February 11, 2012 | Use Full WebsiteChristie calls for N.J. union chief to resign over school voucher comments
February 08, 2012 8:27 PM
TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday called for the resignation of a state teachers union chief who said "life's not always fair" while making an argument against vouchers to send poor students to private schools.
New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Executive Director Vincent Giordano made the comment on the local "New Jersey Capitol Report" program over the weekend. During the interview, he was challenged by the host on why low-income families should not have the same options as other families when their child is in a failing school.
"Those parents should have exactly the same options and they do. We don't say that you can't take your kid out of the public school. We would argue not and we would say, 'Let's work more closely and more harmoniously,'" Giordano said.
When told some families cannot afford to finance the shift to private school without government help, Giordano said, "Well, you know, life's not always fair and I'm sorry about that."
At a press conference in Westfield, N.J., on Wednesday Christie said, "I cannot express how disgusted I am by that statement by the head of the largest teachers union in our state, but I also have to tell you I'm not the least bit surprised because I think it so succinctly captures what their real position is."
Giordano also said in the interview that the union's "record of support for urban education and disadvantaged children is unimpeachable."
He said the union does oppose vouchers, but only because "they will take resources from disadvantaged public schools and only exacerbate the challenges faced by students in those communities."
Anti-voucher advocate claims proposed scholarship program would be funded out of public school budgets
Thousands of students could receive a private education through corporate donations to a so-called "scholarship" program, but one critic claims the proposed school voucher program would be funded on the backs of public schools.
Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for the anti-voucher group Save Our Schools NJ, explained the funding mechanism within the proposed legislation, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, during a recent interview on News 12 New Jersey’s Power & Politics show.
"(The Opportunity Scholarship Act) would be funded directly from public school budgets," Rubin said during the show broadcast on Dec. 3 and 4. "So it would absolutely take money out of the public school system to transfer to private and religious schools."
After reviewing the legislation, PolitiFact New Jersey determined that Rubin skipped a few elements of the proposed voucher program, but she still has a point that public schools would lose state aid as a result.
There’s no direct link between the scholarships and public school budgets, as Rubin said. Students would receive scholarships through donations made by corporations, and use them to pay for tuition at other public schools or private schools.
However, those corporations would get tax credits in return, and to make up for that lost tax revenue, the state would withhold aid from the students’ original school districts.
In a phone interview, Rubin acknowledged the process involving the tax credits, but argued that public schools are ultimately paying for the program.
"It’s like a money laundering scheme," Rubin told us. "It’s a direct reduction in school aid. So the schools are paying for it."
Let’s explain how the proposed voucher program would work:
The Opportunity Scholarship Act is part of Gov. Chris Christie’s education reform agenda, but the legislation has stalled in the Legislature since early this year. About two weeks ago, opponents and supporters of the bill held competing rallies, one in Jersey City and one in Trenton.
The current version of the Act would set up a five-year pilot program to award scholarships to public and private school students residing in 13 school districts with failing schools, including Asbury Park and Newark. Public school students would be able to leave those districts and attend school elsewhere.
Three organizations throughout the state would distribute the scholarships to parents or guardians of the selected students.
Corporations making donations for the scholarships would get tax credits worth 100 percent of the value of their donations, costing the state millions’ worth of tax revenue. That’s where the school aid dollars come in.
According to the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, which analyzed the Senate version of the bill, up to nearly $1.2 billion in state aid would be initially withheld from the 13 districts over the course of the program. Of that amount, about $354 million would be returned to the districts, according to OLS.
But the remaining roughly $840 million would be retained by the state to offset the loss of corporate business taxes, according to OLS.
So, the scholarships would not be directly funded by public school dollars, but in a roundabout way, education aid would be withheld to cover the tax credits granted to donors providing the scholarships.
But Adam Bauer, a spokesman for Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., one of the bill’s sponsors, argued that under the state’s school funding formula, schools would lose a proportionate share of state aid if their enrollment declined for any other reason.
"That’s how the formula works," Bauer said in an email. "Why then is it such a travesty when this happens as a result of a student choosing to go elsewhere as part of a scholarship program?"
In a television interview, Rubin claimed the Opportunity Scholarship Act "would be funded directly from public school budgets" and "take money out of the public school system to transfer to private and religious schools."
The program would not make a direct link between public school budgets and the scholarships. But to offset the cost of tax credits awarded to the scholarship donors, the participating school districts would lose state aid.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.
(The links at the bottom of this piece are to very informative additional articles.)
2,500 attend Trenton rally supporting school voucher program for N.J. students in failing districts
Published: Thursday, December 01, 2011, 8:19 PM Updated: Friday, December 02, 2011, 5:48 AM
By Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — Supporters of a bill to give scholarships to tens of thousands of students in failing public schools to attend private and parochial schools rallied on the Statehouse steps today, urging legislators to take action.
Most of the 2,500 demonstrators were parochial school students participating in what organizers called a "field trip" and a "lesson in civil rights." The mostly teenaged students wore bright blue scarves emblazoned with an image of a life preserver.
Paterson Archdiocese Superintendent John Eriksen and leader of We Can Do Better, a group lobbying for the bill (S1872/A2810), known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, organized the event.
"We want the legislators to hear the voices of the children," Eriksen said. "There is no reason a family in Paterson whose house burned down and is struggling to send their children to private school shouldn’t benefit from this legislation."
The bill would solicit corporations to offer tax-deductible donations to fund the scholarships.
The Legislature has to act on the bill by mid-January or it must be reintroduced once new legislators are sworn in.
Jack Goan, 14, an eighth-grader at Christ the King School in Haddonfield, said he supports vouchers even though his family can afford his tuition.
"At public school, all the kids have to learn at the same pace, but here, you can go at your own pace," Goan said.
Students from Immaculate Conception in Montclair and Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth also demonstrated.
Though Gov. Chris Christie has touted the voucher bill as a signature piece of his education reform agenda, the legislation has stalled since February. At the time, Democrats expressed concerns over the size of the bill, which would create a pilot program for 13 towns and up to 40,000 students who would receive scholarships of $8,000 per year for elementary students and $11,000 for high school students.
Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), one of the bill’s sponsors, said the pilot program could be pared down to serve only five districts, including Camden, Newark, Paterson and Asbury Park. Elizabeth and Trenton are also being considered for the fifth district.
Those who oppose vouchers held a competing rally Wednesday in Jersey City organized by the Newark-based Latino Institute and Save Our Schools, a grassroots coalition of parents and community leaders.
"Today’s pro-voucher rally is an example of the corrosive influence of money on our democracy," said Bill Colon, director of the Latino Institute, and Julia Rubin, leader of grassroots organization Save Our Schools in a joint statement. "Twenty years of voucher experiments have proven that vouchers do not help a single child."
• N.J. Democrats say bill offering vouchers for students in failing public schools is too costly
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