May 20 2012
Freeing Students from Failing Schools in New Jersey
Vicki E. Alger
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made moving children from failing schools his top legislative priority. “A lot of fights will come up over the next 59 days, but my number one fight will be passing the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” Gov. Christie said during a recent keynote address to the American Federation for Children.
Assembly Bill 2830 would create a four-year pilot program giving tax credits to businesses worth 100 percent of their donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. If enacted, New Jersey would become the tenth state to offer a business tax-credit scholarship program. New Hampshire became the ninth state a few weeks ago.
The scholarships, $6,000 for elementary students and $9,000 for high-school students, would go to low-income students attending failing assigned public schools in seven targeted districts. At least 40 percent of students do not pass both reading and math on the state assessment, or 65 percent did not pass either subject, to be considered a failing school. To be eligible for the OSA, families must earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, nearly $43,000 for family of four.
“OSA is an acute solution to both an acute and a chronic concern,” said Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean. “Too many children who are trapped in failing schools are not being afforded an equal start in the race of life.”
There is no OSA donation limit for New Jersey businesses, but aggregate donations are capped at $13.8 million in year one, increasing by that same amount annually up to $55.2 million in year four. Scholarships are also capped at 2,000 in the first year, increasing to 8,000 in the fourth year. Elementary students should receive 70 percent of opportunity scholarships, with the remaining 30 percent for high school students, depending on the number of eligible applicants.
The OSA includes only failing schools in seven districts: Asbury Park, Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, or Passaic. A failing school would have its state school aid reduced by each OSA student’s scholarship amount and keep the remainder. Since those districts’ per-pupil state aid averages more than $20,000, they would keep $11,000 to $13,000 for every OSA student who transfers to spend on a smaller student population. Thus the program actually increases per-pupil revenue.
The legislature has been considering the plan during the past year. Controversy has intensified since a February television news interview when New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vincent Giordano, who reportedly earns a $500,000 salary, told poor families who cannot afford to move their children out of failing schools that “life’s not always fair, and I’m sorry about that.”
Rather than throw in the towel like Giordano, New Jersey parents, taxpayers, and lawmakers see the OSA as chance to make students' futures better, and the program is expected to pass.