A newly formed alliance in New Jersey has launched a drive to gather thousands of signatures in an attempt to persuade state legislators to expand parents’ school choice options in the state to include private school vouchers.
The New Jersey School Choice Alliance, a coalition of about 30 civic, education, advocacy, and religious groups, had gathered more than 75,000 signatures by last week, and planned to circulate its petitions for at least another month.
“We want to convey the support that these programs enjoy among the electorate,” said Dan Gaby, the executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark-based group that advocates school choice. “New Jersey already has a decent amount of school choice, but we want to protect that, and expand on it.”
New Jersey law allows interdistrict transfers at no cost to the parents, as well as charter schools and home schooling. This school year, 50 charter schools are serving about 14,000 students. Besides the existing options, the School Choice Alliance wants lawmakers to enact legislation enabling parents to use publicly financed tuition vouchers to send their children to religious or secular private schools. Such voucher programs exist in Florida, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia.
Securing such a law in New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature will be an uphill battle, Mr. Gaby acknowledged. But coalition members decided to make their voices heard as 2005 approaches, when the entire Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, faces re-election and a hotly contested bid for the Republican gubernatorial primary is expected, he said. Democratic Gov. James E. McGreevey has resigned, effective Nov. 15, and Senate President Richard J. Codey, a Democrat, will serve as governor until the term ends in January 2006.
Alliance members are drafting proposed legislation that they hope to circulate among lawmakers early next year, Mr. Gaby said. New Jersey law doesn’t permit citizens’ groups to place measures on the statewide ballot.
A Tough Sell
Strong opposition to any voucher measure in the Garden State is virtually guaranteed. The New Jersey Education Association, a 188,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, is “adamantly opposed” to private school vouchers, said spokesman Steve Wollmer. He said that the lists of signatures do not accurately reflect public sentiment on the issue.
“They’ll do anything to give the impression of public support, when in fact they don’t have it,” Mr. Wollmer said. “Private school vouchers have always been a loser in New Jersey.”
He noted that such proposals have often been raised in the legislature, to no avail. In 1994, then-Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City helped put a voucher proposal before state legislators, but it died in committee.
The Business Coalition for Educational Excellence, a business-backed advocacy group, opposes the move to write private school vouchers into New Jersey law. The best way to improve schooling for all of the state’s 1.4 million students is to ensure high academic standards, strict accountability, rigorous assessments, and high-quality teacher training, the group argues.
“We believe that we should be building a stronger public education system, because that’s the best choice for the largest number of students,” said BCEE President Dana Egreczky. “We don’t think a system that allows a small percentage of students into private schools is what we should be working toward.”
George Corwell, the education director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which is part of the School Choice Alliance, said that New Jersey offers good options, but not enough. The state should make private schools a viable option for more families, he said.
“The difficulty with charter schools is that they represent a new venture with a mixed record of success,” Mr. Corwell said. “Nonpublic schools, particularly Catholic schools, have a track record of success, coupled with available seats in many areas. That package together seems to be a logical reason why folks would want to look at some form of school choice.”