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Last month, Governor Christie called on the New Jersey lawmakers to pass his version of education reform during the lame duck session of the legislature. The governor listed four bills as crucial to his reform agenda. Among those bills was the controversial ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act’ which would provide corporations a 100% tax credit for contributions made to a state run voucher program, which would then distribute the funds. This legislation would divert from $360 million to over $1 billion in tax dollars away from the public education system to private and religious schools. As a result of the governor’s announcement, voucher proponents have renewed their efforts to get this bill passed claiming that vouchers would help poor children in New Jersey.
The Latino Action Network opposes the publicly funded voucher bill because we see it as a big gimmick that benefits corporate interests that would do nothing to help poor children stuck in failing school districts. Not one penny of corporate money would fund the scholarships established by this misguided legislation.
The Opportunity Scholarship Act, as written, diverts tax dollars already owed to the state of New Jersey without requiring any additional contribution from corporations. Participating corporations will be given bragging rights for providing ‘scholarships’ without making any sacrifice on their part.
The Latino Action Network believes that it is fiscally irresponsible to divert up to one billion dollars from struggling schools in order to pay for a voucher program that has failed to improve the academic achievement of students using them in other states. Furthermore, providing vouchers to a small group of students does nothing to address the underlying conditions that cause schools to struggle in the first place. The vast majority of students in communities with high concentrations of poverty would still be trapped in struggling schools.
There is clear agreement from both sides of this debate that the vast majority of poor children of color in New Jersey are confined to the state’s lowest performing schools based solely on the zip code in which they reside. The members of the Latino Action Network believe that we must do everything we can to end the practice of educational and housing segregation in our state. In the meantime, we must provide immediate relief to as many students as we can. The Opportunity Scholarship Act does not provide that relief.
Private and religious schools have no requirement to prove that public money spent in their institutions will be used to improve students’ academic experiences or achievements. These schools are not held to the same level of standards or accountability as public schools. At a time when our schools need more efficiency and effectiveness, this legislation will lead to less accountability. It is incongruous for Gov. Christie to both say that schools should be measured based on results and to push the Opportunity Scholarship Act which has neither proven effective in increasing results nor requires better results.
There are many ways the state can increase access to excellent public schools for children who live in high poverty areas. These options include the expansion of models like magnet schools, charter schools, and the Interdistrict School Choice Program which enables all students to attend a public school outside their district of residence without any additional cost to their parents or to taxpayers.
The Latino Action Network stands willing and ready to work with lawmakers to develop a comprehensive plan that improves the public education system for the benefit of all New Jersey. We believe that New Jersey should strive to provide the comprehensive and equitable education which our state constitution requires and all of our children deserve.
Christian Estevez is the Executive Vice President of the Latino Action Network and Chair of the LAN Education Committee.