Here’s Why It’s Time For New Jersey Legislators to Finally Pass a Voucher Bill

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The ramifications of this pandemic will take years to unpack but here’s one thing we know for sure: support for school choice—particularly vouchers and expansion of charter schools— has never been higher. So perhaps there’s hope for a new federal bill proposal called the “Educational Choice for Children Act.” And maybe there’s a ghost of a chance for the New Jersey State Legislature to succeed in a decade-long quest to pass a state voucher bill that would, as this 2013 paper from Rutgers’ Journal of Law and Public Policy describes, “shake up the status quo in New Jersey’s poorest districts by allowing low-income parents to choose a school that best fits their child’s needs.”

If either the federal bill or the new version of the NJ bill becomes law—a big “if” to be sure—legislators and leaders would be honoring the beliefs and hopes of the majority of Americans, particularly those of color. Yeah, yeah, Roe v. Wade, that’s (tragically) not how our country works. But perhaps we can coalesce around the principle that low-income students deserve the same shot at academic success as wealthier peers.

Why is today different than a decade ago when New Jersey equity advocates tried and failed (repeatedly) to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) that would have used corporate tax credits to offer low-income families private school choice?

First, a plurality of Americans have lost faith in the government’s ability to run anything, let alone schools. A new Monmouth University poll found “only a little more than 1 in 3 Americans currently believe our system of government is sound, a view that has declined significantly over the past few years.” This plurality includes teachers who belong to unions: according to a poll of 2,400 AFT members, 73% of Republican members and 65% of Democratic members believe public education has become “too politicized.” So-called “Progressives” should take note: low-income Americans, disproportionately Black and Brown, rank the cost of living well above all other concerns. (Also interesting: just 54% of teachers think schools don’t spend enough time teaching kids about racial issues, surprising given union leaders’ intent focus, and teachers were pretty evenly split on whether schools spend enough time or too much time on gender and sexuality.)

I’ve never seen so much anger from parents as they confront the consequences of (unnecessary) school closures. I can’t remember a time when school board meetings were more confrontational. There’s never been so much homeschooling. There’s never been more support for “expanding access to more choices and options within the public school system, including magnet schools, career academies and public charter schools”: according to Democrats for Education Reform, 81% of voters — including 81% of Democratic primary voters and 89% of Black Democratic primary voters, are school choice supporters.

This concensus that giving parents the power to make decisions about which schools best suit their children is new.  A decade ago in 2012 when hopes were briefly high for the New Jersey voucher bill, only 55% of voters supported it. But, nationally, a recent EdChoice poll, found 78% of Republicans and Democrats (77% of Independents) support education savings accounts, a kind of voucher where  parents get access to private and parochial schools. The numbers are even higher for Black parents and low-income parents. 

I know, I know, it’s complicated. I’ve struggled with the idea of directing state funds to private and religious schools but COVID-19 (plus other factors) put me over the top: How can equity advocates sit on their hands in a state where entry to high-quality schools is determined by a family’s ability to afford expensive homes and pay crazy-high property taxes? How is this refusal to confront the plight of families red-lined into low-performing schools “progressive” or “stronger, fairer, forward,” to quote Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign slogan? 

Here’s a fact: no matter how you feel about Betsy DeVos (here’s what I think), anti-voucher and anti-choice positions are, in a word, regressive. Back in 2001 uber-progressive Robert Reich wrote an essay called “The Case for Progressive School Vouchers” in the American Prospect, arguing that giving kids state-sponsored vouchers, inversely related to the size of their family’s income, is the “most promising way to improve school performance.” “The only way to begin to decouple poor kids from lousy schools,” explains Reich, “is to give poor kids additional resources, along with vouchers enabling them and their parents to choose how to use them.”

So what do these bills look like? The federal voucher bill, introduced last month, would provide “a charitable donation incentive for individuals and businesses to fund scholarship awards for students to cover expenses related to K-12 public and private education, amounting to $10 billion on an annual basis.” 

The new version of the NJ bill (still called the Opportunity Scholarship Act) would create a five-year pilot program to “provide scholarships to certain low-income children to attend a nonpublic school or an out-of-district public school.” The vouchers would be funded by tax credits and administered by a “scholarship organization.” The first year 2,500 students would get scholarships to any public or private school in one of eight targeted school districts (Asbury Park, Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Passaic, and Perth Amboy) and by year five 10,000 would. Eligible students have to come from low-income families and be enrolled in a “chronically failing school” (defined as 40% of students failing both math and reading tests or 60% failing one or the other). 

Also, the private and parochial schools accepting voucher students would have to choose students through a lottery, release the results of annual “grade-level appropriate assessments,” not require any additional payments from families beyond the value of the voucher, and allow parents to opt their children out from religious instruction. Also, all these schools have to be non-profits. 

Let’s think about this for a moment. In Newark, four out of five students fail state math tests. In Asbury Park, only one in four 10th-graders meet expectations in reading and almost every fifth-grade and eighth-grade student fails the math test. In Lakewood, three out of four third-graders don’t read at grade-level, four out of five middle schoolers don’t reach proficiency in math, and 28% of high school students are chronically absent. 

These students’ parents can’t afford to move to another district. Therefore they are denied the school choice afforded to wealthier New Jerseyans. Shouldn’t we even try to make this work?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.

After a Decade of Opposing Voucher Programs, I’m Wondering If I Was Wrong

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