Scholarship bill makes new progress in N.J. Legislature

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Legislation that would create a five-year pilot program to help students in failing New Jersey schools has now been referred to the Assembly’s Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

The June 24 development appeared to improve prospects for the bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which initially had been assigned to the Assembly’s Education Committee and which has met with intense opposition from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference, the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, and school choice advocates have pressed for the bill’s passage. In May, the New Jersey Catholic Bishops in a joint statement said, “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,” they said.

The bill did not move out of committee before the legislative session ended June 30, as legislators were focused on state budget matters. Sponsors and supporters of the bill have indicated they still are hopeful that the legislature will take action on the bill in a special summer session.

Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-5), who served on Camden’s city council from 1994-2010, is the sponsor of the Assembly bill (A-2810) along with Assemblyman Alex deCroce (R-24). The Senate version of the bill (S-1872), sponsored by Senator Raymond J. Lesniak (D-20) and Sen. Thomas H. Kean (R-21), remains in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee after having met with unanimous approval in the Senate Economic Growth Committee in May.

The bill in its current form would enable eligible low-income children attending a chronically failing public school anywhere in New Jersey to receive scholarships to attend participating public or non-public schools. The scholarships would be funded through corporate tax credits. Meanwhile, districts containing the failing schools would be eligible to apply for Educational Innovation funds to improve their public schools.

Hoping to move the bill in the Senate, Sen. Lesniak suggested two weeks ago that the bill could be modified to help secure its passage this summer, perhaps limiting the number of failing schools covered by the program. He said the overall number of scholarships would be the same, but by limiting the program to targeted municipalities, more scholarships would be available in each location.

With negotiations underway on possible changes, supporters of the bill have urged legislators to maintain the integrity of the program so that modifications are not detrimental to the children the bill intends to help.

“It is important to remember that this always has been a pilot program, so, as it is implemented, there will be a careful analysis of the impact it is having on participating students from failing schools,” said Deacon Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference.

Brannigan also took note of the broad coalition of support building for the bill and the cooperation of legislators from both parties. “While Democratic Senator Lesniak and Democratic Assemblyman Fuentes have been early advocates of the bill, the bill now enjoys broad bi-partisan support in North and South Jersey,” he said. “Significant progress has been made already and we’re confident that the bill will move when the legislature comes back into session.”

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Editor’s note: The Catholic Conference has urged the public to contact the offices of the members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee to encourage their support for the bill. They also have asked the public to urge Senator Paul Sarlo and Assemblyman Albert Coutinho to schedule the bill for a hearing and a vote in their respective committees.

To use the New Jersey Catholic Conference Capwiz system, see www.capwiz.com/njcathconf/home/. For more information about the Opportunity Scholarship Act, and for a full list of members of the Senate and Assembly Committees, see www.WeCanDoBetter-nj.org