By Pete McDonough, Jr.
NJ Spotlight
June 2, 2010

Caught up in rhetoric over the Opportunity Scholarship Act, many overlook a decade-old school-choice system that’s proven to work

You’d have thought the world was coming to an end a few weeks ago when the Senate Economic Growth Committee heard testimony and approved a bill that would allow students to use vouchers, from $6,000 to $9,000, to leave chronically failing public schools and attend other schools, private, parochial or public.

The bipartisan bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, would establish a pilot program to provide tax credits to entities contributing to scholarships for low-income children, enabling them to enroll in schools of their choice. The bill is sponsored by two of the Senate’s most powerful members, Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, and Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the Senate’s Republican leader.

Opponents said vouchers would mean the end of public schools as we know them. One opponent said the bill would have “apocalyptic consequences.”

Supporters heralded the bill as the dawn of a new beginning in education in New Jersey, calling vouchers the only meaningful exit strategy for students who are the victims of their zip codes, forced to attend schools that, generation after generation, have failed their students.

Apocalypse? Dawn of a new beginning? The theatrics of the day were over-blown. New Jersey has had a voucher system in place for more than a decade. The program serves more than 43,000 three- and four-year olds in the pre-school programs in former Abbott districts and relies on a vibrant mix of private and public institutions to provide high-quality education.

And it’s been an enormous success.

The design of the pre-school voucher program was developed by the Whitman administration in response to a 1998 NJ Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to provide free pre-kindergarten education to three- and four-year olds in the state’s 28 poorest districts.

Using the traditional public school model to meet the court’s mandate was problematic. It would be enormously expensive, public school facilities were incapable of accommodating tens of thousands of new students, and teachers were not readily available.

There were, however, hundreds of qualified private organizations, nonprofits and other community-based providers ready and willing to supply these essential services.

So, at the intersection of challenge and opportunity, the state embarked on a hybrid partnership, using public and non-public schools to educate New Jersey’s youngest students.

The plan required non-public school providers to adhere to strict guidelines. The teacher-to-student ratio required three adults to classes of no more than 20 students — a ratio that exceeded the national norm of one adult for 10 students. It also required that at least one of the adults have a background in early childhood education and be certified.

The mix of non-public and public schools providing early childhood education has varied over the years. About 60 percent of the students in the program today receive their educations at non-public schools; others are educated at traditional public schools.

How well has the program worked?

A 2009 analysis conducted by researchers at Rutgers University found that children who attended the preschool education program outperformed their peers in first and second grades. Students in the public-private system had better language and reading skills, better conceptual abilities and significantly better math skills.

The student outcomes were so positive that then-Governor Jon S. Corzine called the program “a proven success here in New Jersey,” adding, “New Jersey’s high-quality preschool system produces positive results and better prepares children for elementary school.”

That came as a ringing endorsement of a voucher-based program from a man who in 2000 said, “I will not support private school vouchers. Vouchers take resources away from the very schools that need them most. In fact, vouchers will break the bank by paying twice for the public’s charge to educate our kids.”

Indeed, it is hard to reconcile the rhetoric of school choice opponents with the results of New Jersey’s landmark school choice program.

Ah, but the irony in the realm of school vouchers is not limited to the anti-choice crowd.

The decision to expand to three- and four-year olds the requirement that the state provide a through and efficient education has been roundly and regularly criticized by conservatives. How, they question, could anything other than a dizzyingly activist Supreme Court find that the requirement to provide an education to children between the ages of five and eighteen really include three- and four- year olds?

Without question, however, the 1998 “activist ruling” by the state Supreme Court is at the heart of how New Jersey became a national leader in school vouchers — a program that conservatives overwhelmingly support and that serves our children so well.