N.J. Opportunity Scholarships offer students a way out of failing schools

December 5, 2011

 In this post-election period, the Legislature has a chance to make a real difference in the lives of thousands of students shackled to low-performing schools. It’s a chance that leaders genuinely concerned about the future cannot afford to let slip by. The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is ready for the final few steps of the legislative process and could be on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk by the end of the month if lawmakers do what they know is right for their constituents.

Taxpayers have generously funded chronically failing public schools for decades, and the public has every right to be outraged at the high cost of continued poor performance in so many urban schools. For the children consigned by their ZIP Code to such schools, the price is measured in lifetime outcomes. Their sub-par educational opportunities virtually ensure that they remain in society’s underclass, which in turn ensures that they indefinitely remain an economic burden to taxpayers.

Under OSA, corporations receive a tax credit for every dollar they donate, and kids consigned to chronically failing schools get scholarships. Corporations get a tax write-off that will be capped at an amount necessary to finance the program. Parents get to choose a school – private, parochial or public – for their children that provides high-quality educational opportunity.

Some have expressed concerns about OSA’s constitutionality, wondering whether it will pierce the Kevlar curtain that separates church and state. I don’t see that as an issue; courts around the country have found no problem because the public funds go to parents, not to the schools.

Though it’s a program new to New Jersey, there are now students in 18 states who benefit from some version of OSA. A recent report by The Foundation for Educational Choice revealed that 18 of 19 studies found OSA-like programs had resulted in improvement to the public schools; and in 10 studies that looked at the program’s effect on students, six found that all students benefited, three found that some did, and one found no impact. Not one study found a negative effect.

The pending New Jersey legislation is proposed as a pilot program, with criteria and limitations. Only low-income students can benefit, only a few districts will be permitted to participate, both donations and scholarships will be capped, and over the five years of the pilot program, availability will be incremental. Elementary school students would receive up to $8,000, while those in high school would get $11,000. Participating schools that receive students would be required to meet state Department of Education standards and accept the scholarship as payment in full.

It is expected that demand for the scholarships will outpace availability, which unfortunately means some children will have to win a lottery to escape a failing school and gain access to a good one. I don’t agree with the rationing of educational opportunity this way, but the current system does not provide a means of escape for those who cannot afford to move.

It is doubtful that President Barack Obama would be president today had he not been the beneficiary of a scholarship to the prestigious private Punahou school as a child and adolescent in Hawaii. OSA will help ensure that New Jersey educates its Barack Obamas of the future.

In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there should be no partisan posturing, nor shortage of courage in the New Jersey legislature on OSA. The children have no time to waste, and neither should any member of the Legislature.

Martin Perez, Esq., is president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.