Christie's voucher plan lacks key part

New Jersey Education Commissioner Bret Schundler told the Assembly Budget Committee that Gov. Christie's proposals would provide long-term benefits for education. (MEL EVANS / Associated Press)


If it quacks like a duck … Right, so why is Gov. Christie trying to camouflage his school vouchers plan as a “scholarship” program? The misnomer doesn’t make what he calls a “first step” to a “final solution” any more palatable.
It’s not that vouchers should be out of the question. Too many children are being poorly educated in public schools to be denied alternatives. Public charter schools, in particular, can be a better choice when adequately regulated. But alternatives shouldn’t punish the children left behind in failing schools, which is exactly what Christie’s idea would do. Not only that, it would take money out of the state’s general fund at a time when it simply cannot afford it.
Christie’s plan, in the form of a bill on the fast track in the state Senate, sets up “scholarships” funded by private corporations that would then be able to get every dollar back in the form of tax credits. It’s a sham arrangement that allows the state to pay for vouchers using middlemen. The proposal would withdraw a minimum of $360 million from the state’s general fund over five years, including up to $24 million in tax credits the first year and an additional $24 million each subsequent year of the program.
That type of subsidy when school districts across New Jersey are struggling to cope with a $1.2 billion cut in state aid doesn’t compute. But it’s what was feared when Christie tapped school vouchers advocate Bret Schundler to be his education secretary. This measure could have a devastating financial impact on poor school districts. When a student uses a voucher to leave a public school, the per-student state aid for that child would go into a special fund. Districts can then apply for grants from that fund to pay for innovative programs.
You don’t have to attend a poorly performing school to get a voucher. You qualify even if there is only one state-designated chronically failing school in your district. In fact, you don’t have to be enrolled in a public school to get a voucher since a quarter of the “scholarships” are reserved for private-school students.
The Black Ministers Council of New Jersey has endorsed the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, and that’s understandable. Pastors of congregations in largely urban districts are desperate to give their children a better chance for a good education. Proponents of Christie’s plan like that it says private schools must accept the $6,000 to $9,000 vouchers as full tuition. They forget that private schools will have other criteria for admission that may bar many students.
The reality is that vouchers won’t help most students in bad schools because most won’t take advantage of the program, and their parents won’t force them to change schools. That’s why Christie shouldn’t focus on vouchers without placing more emphasis on helping students left behind. His measure also falls short in not providing a way to hold private schools accountable for the academic results after they have received money-laundered public funds to educate children.
If Christie wants school vouchers, fine. He doesn’t have to try to be clever and call them something else. But he can’t expect the public schools to be satisfied with the bone he’s tossing them — a chance to apply for a grant from a fund of money that they already had. It’s Christie and Schundler who need to be more innovative.