We’re in receipt of a memo from NJEA,

dated yesterday, which itemizes its objections to new recommendations from Gov. Christie's transition subcomittees regarding pension and educational reforms. (Sorry: no link available.) Predictably, the NJEA leadership disparages Senate President Steve Sweeney’s intention to address the pension fund’s insolvency by rolling back increases, moving to defined contribution plans, and using the last five years to calculate pension pay-outs instead of the last three years.

The criticisms of the Education Transition team (see our cheat sheet here) get a little more interesting. NJEA, the memo says, is “preparing to act according” to fight any legislation that would enact the recommendations, specifically collective bargaining, tenure, and school choice.

Re: the Education Subcommittee’s recommendation to freeze salaries for FY 2011: “NJEA believes that contract imposition is antithetical to the process of collective bargaining and we oppose changing the collective bargaining law to allow that practice.”

Re: the recommendation to award tenure after five years, not three: “NJEA firmly maintains that tenure is a necessary due-process requirement which protects teachers from arbitrary, capricious or politically motivated firings. The current three-year probationary period, in which a teacher does not earn tenure protection until the first day of the fourth year of employment, provides sufficient time for administrators to evaluate new teachers and determine whether tenure should be granted.”

Re: the recommendation to expand charter schools: “rushing the application process in order to meet an unrealistically short timeline of opening 5-10 new charter schools this year would not allow for adequate review by the Department of Education and planning by the charter school operator. That is not the way to maintain high standards.”

Re: Gov. Christie’s executive order on “pay to play,” which would restricts state unions’ lobbying efforts: “NJEA’s attorneys are reviewing the order to determine if it is applicable to NJEA. While we are awaiting a final opinion, it appears likely that the executive order will not be able to prevent NJEA and its members from exercising our rights to engage in the political process.”

Re: the recommendation to support scholarship/voucher programs for children trapped in chronically failing schools: “NJEA remains firmly opposed to using public funds to subsidize private school tuition costs. The proposed voucher bill would divert up to $360 million from the state treasury during the trial period alone. Public funds should be used to support accountable public schools, not to subsidize private, for-profit or sectarian schools.”

Where’d they get that $360 million? From the April 2008 Senate Bill 1607, co-sponsored by Senators Ray Lesniak and Tom Kean and stuck in Senate purgatory since it passed through committee. The “Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act” seeks to establish a pilot program in Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Paterson, and Trenton by offering tax incentives to corporations that provide tuition scholarships to kids trapped in some of our worst schools. In exchange for the scholarships, corporations can receive tax credits over the five years of the pilot program. The total amount of tax credits is capped at $24 million the first year, $48 million the second, $72 million the third year, $96 million the fourth year, and $120 million the fifth year. Grand total: $360 million.

If only math were that simple.

Parochial schools usually charge about $7,000 in annual tuition. As more and more of these schools close down, particularly in poor urban areas like Abbott districts, children transfer to public schools where annual costs runs about $20,000 -$25,000 per child. What’s a better deal for NJ taxpayers? In the first year of the pilot program, $24 million in tax credits would pay for 3428 poor children to attend a parochial school. Or, taxpayers could cough up $68,560,000 - $85,700,000 to send those kids to a (failing) Abbott district school.

Maybe the math is that simple.

Reasonable people can disagree about the propriety of public scholarships for faith-based schools. Should government tax credits support Catholic or Jewish schools, even if the school admits children of any religion according to S 1607? What about the separation of Church and State? Yet is it fair to bar poor children in chronically failing schools from an opportunity at a substantive and safe educational experience because of abstract and philosophical objections? Is there a point at which we acknowledge that more than half the kids attending Camden High didn’t graduate in 2008, and that a fierce urgency obliges us to come up with an immediate alternative?

The issues are complex. NJEA’s memo, specifically regarding S 1607, is reductive and innumerate.

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