Voucher Musings

It’s the same old play-off roster between the supporters and detractors of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, S1872, the Senate bill that would set up a system of offering privately-funded vouchers to students in chronically failing schools. On one side we have Gov. Christie (with surprise teammate Sen. Ray Lesniak, and predictable allies like E3 and the Black Ministers Council), masterfully scapegoating the teacher union leadership as anti-school children, and querulous legislators as weak and beholden to special interests. On the other team we have NJEA and the Education Law Center exercising their strategic game plan to evoke specters of church/state conflict and the misuse of public funding for private and religious schools. Here’s Dr. Lauren Hill, ELC Program Director:
This is a clear assault on NJ public schools, which are recognized as among the best in the nation. Parents, students, educators and all those committed to keeping our public schools strong and equitable need to oppose this harmful bill. Let's make sure New Jersey stays voucher-free.
These internecine scrimmages cast the issues as far more dichotomous than they really are. The church/state thing is troubling. The argument against using private funds for private schools is silly. (Come on. What about, say, health care? What about railroads? It’s positively American to combine the two.) New features of the bill, meant to facilitate passage, would mandate that the vouchers only be awarded in areas represented by legislators who support the bill, which is pretty bizarre. (Should poor parents move to neighborhoods where their representatives aren’t dependent on NJEA contributions?)

This is what the voucher bill has going for it (and I remain agnostic about its value): the “fierce urgency of now,” that resonant phrase penned by Martin Luther King and used to great effect by President Obama. It’s about a child right now in, say, a 7th grade class in Morgan Village Middle School in Camden City, where 83.7% of his or her classmates fail the ASK7 in Math and 84.2% fail the ASK7 in Language Arts. Tell that kid right now that, as Lauren Hill has it, “NJ public schools are the best in the nation.” Tell that child and his or her parents right now, as Steve Baker of the NJEA says, that “pulling resources, pulling students and pulling support for public education is not the way to strengthen those schools.”

It’s all well and good for Opportunity Scholarship Bill opponents to avow their general support for public schools and their fear that private vouchers will undermine that funding because voucher recipients will pull cost per pupil, or some percentage of it, along with them. But it’s a philosophical argument, an abstract construct, moralistic hair-splitting, meaningless babel to that kid and those parents stuck in a chronically failing middle school in Camden (or Trenton or Newark or Asbury Park). There’s no fierceness, no urgency, no now. That’s what that kid in that 7th grade class needs, and that’s what voucher opponents must address if they’re to win any points in this game.