Lesniak Opportunity Scholarships Act Advances

Bill Would Allow Students in Failing Schools a Chance to Receive Better Education

TRENTON – Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, the sponsor of S-1872, legislation known as the “Opportunity Scholarships Act,” which would establish a pilot program to encourage private corporations to fund scholarships for low-income students in chronically failing public schools to transfer to private school, issued the following remarks before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the bill today by a vote of 8-5:

“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.

“Recently, the Diocese of Trenton announced that its 44 Catholic schools will open their doors for the 2011-12 school year, but their fate beyond that is uncertain. I would add, without the Opportunity Scholarship Act, their fate is just about certain. Most will soon close, like Paterson Catholic and St. Mary & St. Peter Academy in New Brunswick did last year, and like St Anthony’s in Elizabeth did a few years ago. I fear for the future of St Pat’s and Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth as well. Trenton City itself closed one parochial school a year for 15 years until its last school closed. And with every closing, as those students return to traditional district schools, comes a greater burden on our taxpayers. 


“But there’s an even greater burden on the children attending New Jersey’s chronically-failing schools. They have no choice. They are stuck, and most of them will be educationally deprived, through no fault of their own.

“The Opportunity Scholarship Act is not the savior for all the children forced to attend New Jersey’s chronically-failing schools, but it is the savior for some. And we should not fail to act to save some, because we can’t save all.

“There are other steps, however, that we can take, in addition to the Opportunity Scholarship Act, to save them all. Recently enacted interdistrict school choice legislation (S-1073) sponsored by Senators Turner, Ruiz, and Kean, will expand educational opportunities for thousands of students. Indeed, 70 districts have already opted to join the program since its authorization. The State Department of Education, using $66.7 million in federal school improvement grants, is also engaged in turning around some of the state’s lowest performing schools. An expanded compliment of Charter Schools, as sought by legislation sponsored by Senator Ruiz which would expand the state’s charter school authorizing capacity (S-2198), will likewise help. All of these proposals, together, comprise an inclusive, holistic approach to expanding education opportunity for our children.

“President Obama’s school reform proposals can, if we take advantage of them, likewise help. We need to do whatever is necessary to help, help and help some more, until there are no failing schools in New Jersey, let alone chronically-failing ones.

“Thousands of children have suffered in substandard schools since the Opportunity Scholarship concept was introduced. They should not wait another moment.

“I urge you to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

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