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Lesniak Introduces ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act’ To Help Kids Transfer Out Of Chronically Failing School Districts

TRENTON – Senator Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, issued the following remarks today after introducing legislation – sponsored with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., and known as the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” – which would create a new program to create scholarships for low-income students to transfer out of underperforming schools:

“The Opportunity Scholarship Act being introduced today by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. and myself will establish a five-year pilot program to provide scholarships to private or public schools for children from low income families attending chronically failing public schools.

“A chronically failing public school has for the past two years had 40 percent or more of its students scoring partially proficient in both language arts and mathematics or 65 percent or more scoring partially proficient in either of the two subject areas. Though we focus on the previous two years’ performance, many of the schools impacted by this bill have failed to meet these minimum standards for much longer. In fact, 32 percent of the schools failed to meet yearly progress standards for 7 years or more.

“Partially proficient is the lowest category of student performance on our state assessments. Interestingly, the education bureaucracy just can’t bring itself to say the “F” word: Failing. So let me say it, these schools are chronically failing the children of our state.

“Of the 2,580 public schools in New Jersey, 205 meet this definition: representing 8 percent of the public schools statewide. The Opportunity Scholarship Act will give some of the low-income students in these schools a chance to get a quality education; something that proves ever more vital every day. In addition, Senator Kean and I recognize that these 205 schools need reforming — for their own sakes and for the sakes of the students who may be unable to participate in the scholarship program. And that’s why this act also establishes the Education Innovation Program: a competitive grant process to be run by the Department of Education. Call this New Jersey’s in-state answer to President Obama’s Race to the Top Fund. To our knowledge, there is no other such program in the country to spur public school reform and Senator Kean and I are proud to lead the way on it.

“In summary, this bill will reduce class sizes, provide more choices to students in the state’s lowest performing schools, and spur the innovation necessary to turn around these same schools.

“The information package has a list of the chronically failing schools representing 12 counties, 33 high schools, 94 middle schools and 78 elementary schools. The municipalities with double digit chronically failing schools are Newark (42), Paterson (25), Camden (24) and Trenton (18).

“The scholarship amounts will be the greater of $6,000, or 40 percent of the chronically failing schools’ district’s average cost per student for grades kindergarten through 8th grade, and the greater of $9,000, or 59 percent for grades 9th through 12th grades. The $6,000 to $9,000 amount is the current average cost per student at non-public schools and will increase proportionately as the per student spending increases in public schools during the five year pilot program. This will not, however, change the total amount of tax credits given under this legislation.

“These scholarships will enable between 2,500 and 3,800 children from low income families attending chronically failing public schools to go to private schools or better public schools in the program’s first year and 5,000 to 7,600, 7,500 to11,400, 10,000 to 15,200 and 12,500 to 19,000 in the succeeding years, out of the nearly 1.4 million public school students, or between 1 to 2 percent.

“Contributions to these scholarships start at $24 million and increase a like amount each year until: totaling $120 million in the final year of the pilot program. That amount will be eclipsed by the dollars saved by averting private school closings.

“The information package contains a study by the NJ School Choice Alliance based on similar legislation introduced last session. The numbers are daunting. In the past ten years, 40,000 non-public school students have returned to the public school system as a result of parochial school closings, costing NJ taxpayers in the neighborhood of $400 to $800 million in the current fiscal year. That’s quite an expensive neighborhood!

“In year one of the pilot program, the averted cost will be range from $40 to $80 million. That savings will be compounded yearly over the course of the five year pilot program. Anyway you look at it, without factoring in the cost of additional school construction, the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” will save taxpayers dollars from day one.

“Also in the information package is a fiscal analysis of Florida’s corporate tax credit scholarship program. The study, completed by Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government, shows a savings of $1.49 for every $1 reduction in corporate tax revenue.

“But, the tax dollars saved are not what drives this legislation. It’s the opportunity for a quality education that the children from poor families are not getting from the chronically failing schools they currently must attend that is its raison d’etre.”

Click here to view a spreadsheet containing New Jersey public schools’ failing test results for the New Jersey Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test (ASK-4 and ASK-8) and the High School Proficiency Assessment test (HSPA)

Click here to read a question and answer write-up, prepared by the NJ School Choice Alliance, about Senator Lesniak’s Opportunity Scholarship Act.

Click here to review a report about tax credit scholarship programs being implemented in other states.

Click here to view an analysis, prepared by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Governmental Accountability, of the Florida Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship program.

Click here to read a Wall Street Journal article about the status of school choice nationwide.

And click here to view a copy of Senator Lesniak’s ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act’