Voucher Bill Fact-Check

NJ’s voucher bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the big education news story today. Assembly Bill 2810 will be the subject of a hearing today before the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee and proponents and opponents are going to the mattresses. Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) is running print ads that begin, “My school is failing me! I go to one of the worst schools in New Jersey. There are 80,000 kids just like me. The New Jersey Education Association wants to me to stay here. Will you help me get out?" New Jersey Teachers Association is running its own ad campaign, and has put out this set of talking points for parent leaders to use to lobby against the bill, which passed through the Senate Education Committee last month. (Here’s coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NJ Spotlight.)

Much of the rhetoric swirls around the bill's use of corporate scholarships so that children in thirteen chronically failing school districts can elect to attend private and parochial schools. (In exchange, the corporations would get matching tax credit and the schools have to accept the vouchers as full payment for tuition. ) Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a recent press release:
“This legislation would take New Jersey down a road no one ever thought it would travel,” she added. “At a time when our public schools have suffered more than a billion dollars in cuts by the state, S1872 would send up to another billion tax dollars to unaccountable private and religious schools. That’s an educational travesty.”
Actually, we’re already down that road, and have been for some time. New Jersey runs a highly-regarded preschool voucher program. The program uses public funds to pay private preschool operators to provide a six and one-half hour daily program to poor three and four-year-olds in Abbott districts. Our commitment to educationally-disadvantaged young children has been heralded by scholars like Linda Darling-Hammond, whose scholarship is cited by both NJEA and the Education Law Center. (Tip to GOP leadership: leave the program alone.)

How does it work? Take Paterson Public Schools as an example, a district where only 28.5% of high school seniors can pass the standard assessment test.

The district publishes a list called “Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers.” Parents can choose any of the thirty-three programs listed and enroll their three and four-year old children for a full-day program. The preschools are reimbursed directly by the district.

Paterson’s 2010 school budget. For the year 2010-2011, 3,308 youngsters attended these schools and the district received $48,000,339 in preschool aid. So each of the preschools, both private and public, received vouchers of about $14,500 per child.

One of the widely-circulated objections to the Assembly Bill is that at least some percentage of the vouchers would go to religious schools. We do that already too. For example, one of the Participating State Mandated Preschool Centers on Paterson's list is Bethel Childcare, no doubt a fine operation. According to the Paterson Public Schools, the Director of the preschool is Pastor Allen Boyer, who runs Bethel Childcare as an arm of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Both the church and the preschool share a street address.) Here’s Pastor Boyer's Facebook page, where he lists his favorite activity as “calling sinners from the darkness to the marvelous” and his favorite music as “Jesus peace music.” (Heading the list of his “likes” column is Senator Bob Menendez. Gotta love Facebook.)

The point is not whether a religiously-centered outfit can run a decent preschool program. (Clearly it can.) The point is not whether non-Christian families would feel welcome at Bethel Childcare. (Let’s assume they do.) The point is that New Jersey has a well-established and successful voucher program which receives accolades from opponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

There may be logical reasons to oppose the Opportunity Scholarship Act. But the opposition's argument -- that using government funds to pay "unaccountable private and religious schools" (to use President Keshishian's phrase) is an unprecedented and dangerous undertaking -- is an historically inaccurate one.

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