Voucher Bill Fact-Check

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NJ’s voucher bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the big education news story today. Assembly Bill 2810 will be the subject of a hearing today before the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee and proponents and opponents are going to the mattresses. Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) is running print ads that begin, “My school is failing me! I go to one of the worst schools in New Jersey. There are 80,000 kids just like me. The New Jersey Education Association wants to me to stay here. Will you help me get out?” New Jersey Teachers Association is running its own ad campaign, and has put out this set of talking points for parent leaders to use to lobby against the bill, which passed through the Senate Education Committee last month. (Here’s coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NJ Spotlight.)

Much of the rhetoric swirls around the bill’s use of corporate scholarships so that children in thirteen chronically failing school districts can elect to attend private and parochial schools. (In exchange, the corporations would get matching tax credit and the schools have to accept the vouchers as full payment for tuition. ) Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a recent press release:

“This legislation would take New Jersey down a road no one ever thought it would travel,” she added. “At a time when our public schools have suffered more than a billion dollars in cuts by the state, S1872 would send up to another billion tax dollars to unaccountable private and religious schools. That’s an educational travesty.”

Actually, we’re already down that road, and have been for some time. New Jersey runs a highly-regarded preschool voucher program. The program uses public funds to pay private preschool operators to provide a six and one-half hour daily program to poor three and four-year-olds in Abbott districts. Our commitment to educationally-disadvantaged young children has been heralded by scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond, whose scholarship is cited by both NJEA and the Education Law Center. (Tip to GOP leadership: leave the program alone.)

How does it work? Take Paterson Public Schools as an example, a district where only 28.5% of high school seniors can pass the standard assessment test.

The district publishes a list called “Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers.” Parents can choose any of the thirty-three programs listed and enroll their three and four-year old children for a full-day program. The preschools are reimbursed directly by the district.

Paterson’s 2010 school budget. For the year 2010-2011, 3,308 youngsters attended these schools and the district received $48,000,339 in preschool aid. So each of the preschools, both private and public, received vouchers of about $14,500 per child.

One of the widely-circulated objections to the Assembly Bill is that at least some percentage of the vouchers would go to religious schools. We do that already too. For example, one of the Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers on Paterson’s list is Bethel Childcare, no doubt a fine operation. According to the Paterson Public Schools, the Director of the preschool is Pastor Allen Boyer, who runs Bethel Childcare as an arm of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Both the church and the preschool share a street address.) Here’s Pastor Boyer’s Facebook page, where he lists his favorite activity as “calling sinners from the darkness to the marvelous” and his favorite music as “Jesus peace music.” (Heading the list of his “likes” column is Senator Bob Menendez. Gotta love Facebook.)

The point is not whether a religiously-centered outfit can run a decent preschool program. (Clearly it can.) The point is not whether non-Christian families would feel welcome at Bethel Childcare. (Let’s assume they do.) The point is that New Jersey has a well-established and successful voucher program which receives accolades from opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

There may be logical reasons to oppose the Opportunity Scholarship Act. But the opposition’s argument — that using government funds to pay “unaccountable private and religious schools” (to use President Keshishian’s phrase) is an unprecedented and dangerous undertaking — is an historically inaccurate one.

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  • mike, February 3, 2011 @ 9:20 pm Reply

    hi… hope this finds you well.

    Again… thanks for your blog… i find your posts very thoughtful.

    I certainly hear you on your fact checking and your use of the cuurent pre-school arrangements in the Abbott school districts as well as a few “Bacan” districts that were able to expand pre-school prior to the state not funding any more expansion.

    Must also mention that as this bill is being debated there are also rumblings from Trenton to cut back the Abbott pre-schools to 1/2 days and save money… so i must question some of the intention of those 2 seemingly opposite agendas.

    The problem i continue to have with this bill is… it is very limited and does-not address the root of the problems…. which is my mind continue to be the seperation from those that have and those that have less. We have segragated ourselves and until we begin to address this we will continue to leave more and more kids behind. Money alone will not solve this problem…. it is time to reconsider and have the courage to create middle class schools for all the kids of our state.

    Linda Darling-Hammond, who you reference addresses this very well in her book: The Flat World and Education…see chapter 2 the Anatomy of Inequality.

    “The United States not only has the highest poverty rates for children among the industrialized nations, but also provides fewer social supports for their well being and fewer resources for them at school.” p. 31

    “The proportion of students of color in intensely segragated schools also increased. Nearly 40% of African American and Latino students attend schools with minority enrollments
    of 90 to 100%.” p. 35

    As America's demographics continue to change this is dangerous.

    By the way…. the most segragated group of all…. white kids… who predominately go to school isolated from any other group.

    Wonder… when will America deal with this?

    thanks again…great blog…


  • Duke, February 4, 2011 @ 3:02 am Reply

    The most obvious difference is that the state does not require every child to attend pre-school, but does require every child to attend K-12.

  • dangold, February 4, 2011 @ 4:17 am Reply

    I recommend this article on why the Abbott preschool is certainly NOT a voucher program: http://goo.gl/DOL0M

    Private schools that accept public funds under a voucher scheme are not publicly accountable for the use of the funds. They are not required to meet State public school standards on academic content and performance, or the accountability benchmarks set by the State under NCLB. Further, religious schools are not bound by laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion and are free to reject students on this basis.

    In sharp contrast, private and faith-based childcare programs that choose to participate in the Abbott pre-k program must meet the same high standards as public schools. They are highly regulated by the State and essentially operate as an arm of the Abbott school district in delivering the high quality pre-k program. The program operates in marked contrast to a voucher program, under which state money flows to religious and private schools without regard to program quality, content or performance. Moreover, not all parents within a district have a choice about where to enroll their child; some Abbott districts deliver the pre-k program exclusively within the district, and some districts with a mixed delivery system assign students to a program setting. Finally, all Abbott pre-k funds are provided directly to the provider to support classrooms, in the same way that education funds are provided to public schools.

  • NJ Left Behind, February 4, 2011 @ 3:32 pm Reply

    Thanks for writing, Mike. We're on the same page. Duke, I'm not sure that the difference you cite is meaningful. Dangold, I appreciate your comments, and I wasn't suggesting that there are no differences between Abbott preschool delivery systems and the OSA proposal. However remember that the tweaks to OSA include requiring all private and religious institutions to administer the same state assessments required by public schools.

  • Mary, February 15, 2011 @ 11:59 pm Reply

    Here are the things that trouble me most about these vouchers:
    1. Students who apply for the “Opportunity Scholarships” must waive their right to all special education services
    2. AT LEAST 25% of the money will go to students already in private schools – thereby replenishing Endowment funds for students who are currently on scholarships at the school or reimbursing families who have already paid the tuition.
    3. Most students in “failing schools” will not be able to use the “scholarship (voucher) because there are no private schools with openings in their district.
    4. School districts who have students leave their schools will lose state funding for each student who goes but will need to provide transportation to those students to the new school.
    5. If impoverished students are not able to find a spot in a private school by August 1 the remaining money will be available to other private school students already enrolled in religious and private schools. All of the money will be spent on someone. And how exactly is this going to benefit poor kids?
    This bill is going to bite the middle class taxpayer very hard. We simply cannot afford this right now.

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