What’s with the big fight over such a small voucher bill?

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

New Jersey’s education politics have, once again, gone viral: from The Huffington Post to U.S. News and World Report, Americans are reading about the kerfuffle between Gov. Chris Christie and N.J. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver over an oft-proposed voucher bill called The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). In short, at a town hall meeting in Paterson last Tuesday, our mellifluous governor lumbered into dangerous territory when he criticized the Speaker for refusing to allow the Assembly to vote on the controversial bill.

OSA would award tax credits to corporations that provide scholarships to private and parochial schools for some poor kids in failing districts. These scholarships are often referred to as “vouchers” because they allow families to exchange them for tuition at a school other than the state-assigned public school.

Intoned the governor in Paterson, “we have an African-American female Speaker of the Assembly who represents communities like East Orange and Orange where there are failing schools all over and she refuses to let people vote on this bill.”

Cue kerfuffle. Speaker Oliver accused Christie of “racial polarization.” “I want to make clear that I am appalled,” she said in a formal statement. “I have never, nor will I ever, reference the governor’s ethnicity, or make a veiled reference to the color of his skin, yet that’s exactly what Gov. Christie did today when discussing me, as if it was the 19th century. Governor – if you have a problem with me, call me by name.”

What’s this really about? How did we get from a limited program of school choice to personal attacks and references to skin color?

Here’s what we do know: OSA pushes all our buttons. It challenges presumptions about the public sector’s immaculacy from the taint of private money. But it also is an acknowledgment that N.J.’s public school system is failing many of its students.

Dramatically scaled back plan

A little background. The original bill, proposed several years ago, was a sprawling overreach polluted by the involvement of too many Tea Partiers and religious school partisans. In its first iteration OSA involved 13 low-income districts, $360 million in scholarships, and overly-generous eligibility criteria.

A far better Assembly version cut the number of districts down to seven and toughened up eligibility requirements. And just last month during his Budget Address, Gov. Christie performed major liposuction on the bill, shrinking it down to a proposal that Sen. Ray Lesniak (a major supporter of vouchers) called a “teeny-weeny” $2 million pilot program.

Should be a shoo-in, right? After all, last year Speaker Oliver told NJ Spotlight that the Assembly “would consider a scaled-back version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act. We welcome [the governor] to come to the table and discuss a compromise that does not further threaten our public education system.”

Certainly OSA’s no panacea; after all, there’s hardly enough slots in parochial and private schools to provide placements to all poor kids in lousy schools. Constitutional issues loom large, particularly that pesky Church/State distinction. And the bill was undermined by Jersey’s much-mocked predilection for wheeling and dealing; that tendency went into overdrive during the evolution of OSA as districts were added or struck from the list based on representatives’ support or opposition. (Two years ago Sen. Lesniak remarked that East Orange is on the list of districts included in OSA, but would most likely be removed because it’s represented by Sheila Oliver.)

OSA only makes sense as a tourniquet, an emergency measure driven by dire circumstances. Its rationale is that poor urban kids attending school in educational embarrassments like Camden need immediate rescue. Constitutional and political messiness is less important than the urgent need to find better options for some individual students right now. Speaker Oliver’s continued opposition denies that reality. Gov. Christie’s proposal for a small pilot acknowledges it.

The Speaker already said she’s open to a compromise. Now there’s one on the table. Can pro-OSA legislators get behind it and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good? Can anti-OSA legislators give this short-term, imperfect tourniquet a chance to provide better educational options for a few kids? Let’s hope so.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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