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entries tagged with: Opportunity Scholarship Act


Would Opportunity Scholarship Act hurt public schools?

Local pols square off on controversial issue

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would provide tax credits to companies that help struggling families to send their children to private or parochial schools in New Jersey, passed an Assembly committee vote last Thursday after six hours of intense debate.

The act, which proposes that $360 million in scholarships be awarded over the next five years, has been characterized by supporters as a lifeline to families whose children want “an equal shot at the American dream” and blasted by critics as fiscally imprudent, undermining efforts to improve the public schools, and potentially breaching the constitutional wall between church and state.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), a primary co-sponsor of the bill, A2810, argued that it will help children who are not being well served in blighted areas and also strengthen the state’s network of private and parochial schools. Other primary co-sponsors are Assemblymen Angel Fuentes (D-5), Alex DeCroce (R-26), and Jay Webber (R-26).

“The state has an obligation to its children over an institution,” Schaer said. “It’s not an either/or. It’s not either you support the public schools or parochial and private schools. These are not mutually exclusive.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, speaking in support of the bill before the Commerce and Economic Development Committee of the State Assembly, where it passed last week in a step along the way toward a vote in the Assembly, argued that it would provide a competitive education to children who might fall through the cracks before long-range improvement happens.

“[This bill] will not take away from what’s happening in Newark … to change our schools, but it will help one child, two children, their parents,” he said. “It’s about time we give some small sliver of hope to parents who are desperate for that in our city.… Give them the same equal shot at the American dream.”

The Orthodox Union supports the bill and testified at last Thursday’s committee hearing.

“We are very supportive of the idea,” Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the OU, told The Jewish Standard. “It’s fantastic from the perspective of the Jewish day-school community. Pennsylvania and Florida have programs exactly like this that have raised millions for Jewish education. From the tikkun olam side, there are kids in New Jersey who are in failing schools and need help. They are not Jewish kids, but we care about every child. Education is a civil rights issue.”

The bill has brought supporters together across political, religious, and racial lines, according to Beigelman.

“You are seeing Democrats and Republicans, urban and suburban leaders support this. You’re seeing both sides of the aisle, folks from inner city, rural and urban areas all together. The coalition of supporters here is so broad it’s really just the teachers union that’s opposed,” he said.

The bill has been described in some quarters as “revenue neutral for the state,” in that it would provide tax breaks to companies in exchange for their sponsorship of students’ attendance at private or parochial schools.

However, opponents and even some boosters note that the scholarship money the bill would award via tax breaks to corporations would be lost to the state.

Yet some advocates argue that, since the bill would result in more students attending private and parochial schools, it would ultimately save state resources given the high costs of public education.

Some local politicians who oppose the bill characterized it as potentially unfair to those students who will not be beneficiaries.

“Some people say, ‘We’d rather save a few than none,’” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) representing Englewood, Teaneck, Hackensack, and Tenafly. “I don’t buy that. I’m concerned with children being left behind in failing districts and unable to go to private school.”

She added, “I think this voucher program will pit parents and students in failing districts against each other and instead the state should help them come together to benefit the public schools in their community.”

Other local politicians criticized what they see as the bill’s financial imprudence. Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-38) expressed skepticism about the claim by some advocates that the bill will be revenue neutral for the state.

“I am no CPA, but how can this bill be revenue neutral?” Voss said. She added that the system, especially state workers’ and teachers’ pension funds, are already financially strapped due to previous governors’ allocation of money from these funds for other uses.

“How can you take money out of a system that is already insufficient?” she said.

Subsidizing of some children’s education at parochial schools would breach the constitutional wall separating church and state, according to Voss. Moreover, the bill would deprive children sent to parochial schools of exposure to children from different religious and cultural backgrounds, undermining a central tenet of the public schools’ mission, she contended.

“If you don’t have social contact with people different from you, whether religiously, culturally, or racially, ignorance of people’s cultures and beliefs is the thing that brings about prejudice,” said Voss. “Public funding of religious schools is segregating kids based on religious beliefs.”

While noting that parents have every right to choose religious education for their children, Voss said she believes families, not government, should foot the bill for that choice.

Schaer acknowledged that $360 million — the maximum scholarship money that can be awarded under the bill over the course of five years — are “funds the state will not see,” but he contends that because proponents expect the legislation to encourage more families to send their children to parochial and private schools, it will end up costing taxpayers less money than it would to educate more students in public schools. He noted that several private and parochial schools have closed in recent years in the districts he serves.

Regarding the church/state issue, Schaer said he expects any final version of the bill to contain a provision directing state resources toward elements of parochial school life that are not religious.

There is a Senate and an Assembly version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The next stop for the Assembly version of the bill is the budget committee, which will vote on it in March. If it passes there, the entire Assembly will decide its fate. The Senate version of the bill is up for a general vote later in the year.


OU looks to Trenton

Scholarship bill a ‘first step,’ but in what direction?

New Jersey may begin providing for tuition payments for some students to attend private schools, including Jewish day schools and yeshivahs, if efforts of school choice advocates succeed when the legislature resumes its session in November.

It will not help Bergen County residents pay their tuition bills, however.

The funding would come through the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that passed the required committees in the State Senate and one of two committees in the Assembly. Advocates of the act, including the Orthodox Union, hope the measure moves forward and goes to Governor Chris Christie for signing before the legislative session ends in December

As currently drafted, the act would provide scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students. One quarter of the available scholarships would be set aside for students presently attending private or parochial schools. The scholarships would be available for families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty line — about $65,000 for a family of five. The schools accepting the scholarships would have to accept them as full tuition, test participating students in statewide testing, and follow other requirements.

The catch for northern New Jersey residents, however, is that these scholarships will be available only for students in a certain number of “chronically failing” school districts — which do not include any in Bergen County.

Three of the 13 proposed pilot districts, however, do include substantial Jewish, and Orthodox, communities: Passaic, Elizabeth, and Lakewood.

“It’s something we’re very positive and happy about,” said Rabbi Joshua Pruzansky of the prospect of the Opportunity Scholarship Act’s passage. “At least it’s moving in the right direction.”

“This is indeed a process,” Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) told the OU’s legislative breakfast. Schaer is one of the lead co-sponsors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. “We will start small. As long as we start the process, we will have the opportunity to have much more done.” Schaer, from Passaic, is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the state legislature.

One vocal communal critic, however, does not believe this process is a step in the right direction. Blogging under the pseudonymn 200kchump, one Bergen County father of day school students has been loudly decrying the high price of day school tuition. He has advocated reform of existing schools, supported the proposal for a local Hebrew-language charter school, and most recently trumpeted the creation of a new lost-cost yeshivah.

State funding, he insists, is not the answer, for two reasons.

“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “It is up to us as a Jewish community to figure out
a way to provide affordable education to our children. We should not be asking for nor accepting handouts from the government to support our yeshivahs.

“Even if one could get comfortable with the church/state issues, our beloved state is a fiscal mess thanks in large part to the greedy public servants who have nearly bankrupted this state. While Gov. Christie is finally starting to get our fiscal house in order and stand up to the unions, I do not believe the state currently is in a position to provide state-financed scholarships.”

Fiscal issues are expected to be concerns as the Assembly budget committee considers the scholarship act, with the possibility of its costs being scaled down.

Cost-cutting concerns in Trenton already have cost day schools money this year. An effort to restore $40 per-capita aid in technology assistance to private schools was part of the budget passed by Democratic legislature, but was vetoed by Christie.

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