Scholarship bill gains assembly sponsor

Senate legislation that would create a five-year pilot program to help students in failing New Jersey schools has gained an Assembly Sponsor.

Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-5), who served on Camden’s city council from 1994-2010, with ten years as council president, has agreed to sponsor an Assembly version (A-2810) of Senate Bill 1872, “The Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

The program, which is modeled on successful programs in other states, would provide tax credits to organizations that contribute toward scholarships that would enable students in failing schools to attend another in-district or out-of-district public schools or in-district or out-of-district non-public schools.

Districts containing the failing schools would be eligible to apply for Educational Innovation funds to improve their public schools.

The Senate bill, which is sponsored by Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) is now before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The Senate Economic Growth Committee on May 13, 2010 unanimously approved S-1872 in a 6-0 vote.

“We have many great school districts in New Jersey. Yet, we have to be honest about the students that we have failed,” Assemblyman Fuentes told the Star Herald. “Thousands of students drop out by age 14. In some districts, there has been a pattern of failure that has occurred over years, even decades. It’s our responsibility to be creative, to think outside the box, to assist parents and children who are crying out for help.”

Bill sponsors estimate that the scholarships will assist between 2,500 and 3,800 children in the program’s first year and 5,000 to 7,600 in year two, 7,500 to 11,400 in year three, 10,000 to 15,200 in year four and 12,500 to 19,000 in year five, representing about 1-2 percent of the nearly 1.4 million public school students in the state.

The Cherry Hill-based Courier Post said in an editorial earlier this week, “The priority for lawmakers should be saving kids, not saving chronically failing institutions…This is nothing less than an issue of civil rights. It is patently unfair and cruel to entrap poor students in schools that, by every standard, do not provide a quality education. The only immediate relief to that is to let families use the tax dollars we allot them to get their children into quality schools. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do…”

The New Jersey Bishops issued a joint letter earlier this month. “Through no fault of their own, some of the poorest children in New Jersey are trapped in schools that are failing to meet their needs. Like all children, these students are deserving of a quality education that will provide them with the skills to succeed in life. We, the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey, are strongly committed to providing a quality education for all New Jersey’s children as a matter of basic justice and as a means of promoting their God-given dignity and well-being.

“The Opportunity Scholarship Act will help ensure the continued viability of nonpublic schools in New Jersey. It will help strengthen public schools. It will empower parents and, for students who might otherwise face futures of economic despair, diminished expectations and unrealized dreams, it offers real hope. With these things in mind, we call on all citizens of New Jersey to join with us in promoting the passage of S-1872 by asking you, our elected leaders, to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” they said.

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