IF YOU WERE GIVEN a chance to change the life of a child, to give low-income families the opportunity to escape failing or dangerous schools — and to do so while saving the state money — then would you take that chance?
The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature, would help do this. The Opportunity Scholarship Act introduced last year by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, R-Union; Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union; Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, D-Audubon, and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, R-Whippany, would create a tax-credit scholarship program based on similar legislation in Pennsylvania and Florida.
Under this bill, corporations that donate money to scholarship-granting organizations could subtract the value of their contributions from their end-of-year taxes, and school districts would cover the cost of the lost revenues.
The Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow low-income students in several school districts to obtain scholarships to attend private schools or out-of-district public schools of their choice. These scholarships would offer a maximum of $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students, saving the average school district roughly half the cost of educating each scholarship recipient.
Currently, the price of educating a student in a New Jersey public school is approximately $18,000, with certain school districts paying even more.
Asbury Park, for example, pays nearly $40,000 per student (according to an audit performed by the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey), yet 100 percent of the students in this district attend “failing schools.”
These students deserve better.
Opportunity for quality education
When the bill was introduced last year, Lesniak commented that OSA would provide the “opportunity for a quality education that the children from poor families are not getting from the chronically failing schools.”
Since then, the bill has been revised several times to address various legislators’ concerns. Nonetheless, at a rally last month, Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, called the current version of OSA “a backdoor way to privatize our schools.”
By contrast, at a rally the next day, Kean argued that although public school reform is important, it is unfair to “ask children in failing schools to just hold on until we … fix their schools.” At the same rally, Fuentes urged passage of OSA, declaring, “We cannot wait any longer.”
Many criticisms have been leveled at OSA, but after several revisions to the proposed law these criticisms have been either addressed or debunked.
For example, some opponents object that state funds cannot go to non-public schools. This is false. The New Jersey Constitution has no Blaine Amendment, which forbids state funds to sectarian institutions.
Moreover, OSA scholarship money goes directly from private donors to scholarship organizations to disadvantaged students. The student then decides which participating school to fund, whether public or non-public. The state neither collects the money nor decides where it ends up — a method the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld.
When critics worried that OSA would divert funds from local public schools, it is a revenue-neutral bill that was revised to pass on the savings as well as the costs to local school districts.
Although school districts bear the costs of their students’ scholarships, they also avoid the costs of educating those students. Since the average school district spends $18,000 on each student, districts will save at least $8,000 for each scholarship recipient in elementary or high school, respectively.
The money saved by OSA will allow school districts to invest even more money on the remaining students.
When opponents claimed that OSA funds could be used for current non-public school students to continue attending public school it was revised. Under the new bill, only current public school students or students entering Grades 1, 6 or 9 (entry points for elementary, junior high and high school, respectively) can receive OSA scholarships.
To claim that OSA would subsidize existing private school students would be at best mistaken, and at worst disingenuous.
Help as many as possible
Finally, some object that OSA will only help a small percentage of students in the failing schools. This is irrelevant. When a building is on fire, and only a few occupants can be saved, should the firefighters give up because they cannot save everyone? No, they should attempt to rescue as many people as they can.
Indeed, we would rather help more children escape failing or costly schools, but many legislators want to first test OSA as a pilot program.
We are confident that if implemented, OSA’s success will speak for itself.
JOSH PRUZANSKY IS THE REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC POLICY IN NEW JERSEY FOR THE ORTHODOX UNION’S INSTITUTE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com