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School choice a solution for ending poverty in New Jersey

This is Part 4 of a series about poverty in New Jersey.  Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

There are myriad policy changes that would help New Jersey overcome poverty. Overall, New Jersey’s ability to attract to businesses will play a large role in its defeat. One prerequisite to attracting businesses to a state is an excellent work force that is well educated and highly skilled.

Expanding school choice is one way to improve the educational achievement level of New Jersey’s work force and to enable the workers to gain skills they need to be successful.  New Jersey has made substantial gains with respect to school choice, but caps and restrictions have been put on the program that hinder its full benefit of allowing enough children to escape from their failed zip code school districts.

First, let’s look at a brief description of the progress.  New Jersey:

  1.  Adopted school choice for children of teachers in 1992
  2. Adopted a Charter School Program in 1995
  3. Adopted a five-year pilot school choice program in 1996
  4. Enacted the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act (IPSCP) in 2010

IPSCP allows school districts with additional student space to apply to the Commissioner of Education to be approved as a Choice District to which out-of-district students could apply to attend.

However, in 2013 the state imposed a 5 percent cap on student growth in Choice Districts.  The program was so successful that it grew from 15 districts in the first year to 136 Choice Districts approved for the 2014-15 school year.  Due to the popularity of the program among parents and students, the state felt forced, by budget considerations, to limit the number of seats a Choice District could offer in the 2014-2015 school year to 5 percent more than the number offered in the 2013-2014 school year.

Many, and in some cases a majority, of the children who are applying for school choice are from disadvantaged school districts.  For example, 64 of the 108 applicants to the Audubon High School 2014-15 IPSCP were from disadvantaged school areas.  However, with the new caps, Audubon is limited to only five new openings, even though it has the capacity to take 45 more students.   That is an example of a lost opportunity that might have helped lift those students from disadvantaged areas out of poverty.

Out of the 2,492 public schools in New Jersey in 2012-2013, the NJ Department of Education had only authorized 87 charter schools.  Charter schools are not managed by the local school districts; therefore, they are free to design their own curricula, set their own hours and develop teaching methods they believe will best serve their students’ needs.  Charter schools whose students do not obtain high achievement standards can be shut down.

The New New Jersey Charter School Association has stated:

 Across the country and in New Jersey, high-quality charter schools are making a difference. The schools are associated with higher math and English proficiency rates as well as greater chances for a high school diploma. Many high-performing charter schools have proven that no matter the race or socio-economic status of a student, all kids can and do achieve academically.

Since charter schools have proven to be successful for children of low income families, New Jersey could reduce poverty in the state by approving more charter schools.

Stanford University’s CREDO study in comparing charter schools vs. traditional public schools nationwide found that the performance improvement of students in Newark’s charter schools vs. those who stayed in the traditional Newark schools was the highest in the country.  Since Newark has a reputation for a high density of poverty and poor public schools, it would appear to make sense to improve outcomes of the students and to give them the skills to be lifted out of poverty that the NJDOE should continue to approve more charter schools and IDPSC programs in Newark, as well as throughout the state.

To pay for these programs, given the budget constraints, some of the failed public schools should receive less money for their smaller student populations. Those schools should concentrate on the needs of the students that are still there, or, in some cases, the seriously failed schools, should be closed.

In other words, improve or be shut down to free up money for the schools that work.   The reason this reallocation of resources is not happening is that there are too many vested interests, such as the superintendents, administrators and teachers unions, so the interests of the students and their parents are being overlooked.

New Jersey Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex, Warren and Morris) has stated that school choice was about the quest for excellence and that he would like every parent to have a choice.  He said he wants to bring competition into education. He added that competition not only helps students, but also offers opportunities for good teachers to specialize and move to districts where their particular talents are needed and appreciated.  According to Sen. Oroho, New Jersey spent $30 billion on education — or 30 percent more than Massachusetts — with lower outcomes. He emphatically stated that the money is there, it is just a question of allocating it properly.

Sen. Oroho believes that the money should follow the student, whether in vouchers, charter schools, vocational technical schools (Vo-Techs) or Interdistrict Public School Choice.  The money should be reallocated from failed schools in the “Abbott Districts” to charter schools, IPSC programs or vouchers to give all children in New Jersey the education, learning tools and jobs skills to enjoy a career path out of poverty and into the middle and upper classes.

New Jersey could improve the prospects for some of the students from low-income families in failing schools with the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). The bill, which has been introduced in several legislative sessions, would provide tax credits for corporations that make contributions to a scholarship fund. The scholarships would be granted to low-income students in failed schools so that they could attend participating private or parochial schools.

Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Morris, Somerset and Union) has pointed out that the OSA bill provided for a clear definition of a failed school – one in which 40 percent of the students failed both the English and Math tests or 60 percent failed one of the tests. Kean said it was an immediate solution for a child caught in a failed school, and said he believed that it could pass, if it got to the floor of the New Jersey Senate.

In 2011, Senator Raymond Lesniak, (D-Elizabeth and Union) who had originally been a sponsor of the OSA, made a speech before a Senate Committee, in which he said:

The intent of the Opportunity Scholarship Act is to give children from low-income families, who are forced to attend a chronically-failing school simply because of their zip code, an opportunity to get a quality education. But the Opportunity Scholarship Act will also save tax dollars—a huge amount of tax dollars. If it were in place ten years ago, the Opportunity Scholarship Act would have prevented most of the private school closings that now cost our taxpayers $600-800 million a year.

The OSA has received bipartisan support, but has yet to get a floor vote in the Senate, possibly because Senate President Stephen Sweeney opposes the bill.  If the bill becomes law, it could offer another opportunity to raise students from low-income families out of poverty and help break the cycle of poverty in many of New Jersey’s under-performing school districts.

This is Part 4 of a series about poverty in New Jersey.  Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

Richard Miner

Richard is a retired corporate attorney. In New Jersey, he was General Counsel of Mohawk Data Sciences, a NYSE-listed computer company, and VP and General Counsel of Momentum Technologies, a privately held computer company. He has a J.D. from Columbia Law School, a Masters in Corporate Law from NYU Law School, a B.A. in Economics from Brown University, and a certificate in Corporate Financial Management from NYU Stern School of Business. Raised in Ridgewood, NJ and a graduate of Ridgewood High School, he enjoys downhill skiing and races Lightning sailboats from his home at Lake Mohawk, NJ.

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