David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, has an editorial at New Jersey Newsroom in which he attacks the “voucher bill,” or The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill (S1872) sponsored by Senators Thomas Kean Jr. and Raymond Lesniak. Among its failings, alleges Mr. Sciarra, is a flawed metric for evaluating failing schools, loss of state revenue through corporate tax breaks to companies that donate scholarships, too high a threshold for defining low-income students, lack of educational accountability for private and parochial schools, and loss of revenue for public schools.

Oddly, he adds another deficit: passage of the Scholarship Act, he claims, will hurt our chances at winning the next round of the Race To The Top competition:
Bill supporters also tout vouchers as a way to help the State secure a competitive Race to the Top (RTTT) grant. However, RTTT grants have extensive guidelines and requirements for stakeholder participation, along with strictly defined initiatives such as improving the distribution of qualified teachers and adopting more rigorous academic standards and assessments. Again, vouchers are not included as an RTTT reform strategy. If enacted, the voucher bill may well undermine the State's chance of winning an RTTT grant.
While voucher programs are not mentioned in the RTTT application, there’s a clear agenda for expanding school choice. And, in fact, one of the highest scorers in the first round of RTTT – Florida – has one of the strongest voucher programs in the country, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is funded by corporate contributions in return for tax credits. Currently about 42,000 students (about half are special ed) receive vouchers.

How’d Florida do with its undermining voucher program? Out of the 16 states that were finalists for RTTT funds, Florida came in 4th. The two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, got 454.6 points and 444.2 points respectively (out of a possible 500). Georgia garnered 433.6 points and Florida ended up with 431.4. Pretty damn close, vouchers and all.

The most interesting question is why Mr. Sciarra chose to take a two-paragraph detour during his well-argued commentary, veering to a flawed argument about the impact of a NJ voucher program on our RTTT prospects. Was it a political calculation? After all, Vince Giordano, Executive Director of the egg-faced NJEA, is also a Trustee of Education Law Center, and might have insisted on its inclusion. Anyway, ELC has no fondness for RTTT (here’s one of its press releases criticizing the federal program) and isn’t likely to want to help NJ along in its quest for education reform funding. What gives?

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