Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett wanted vouchers. Republican leadership in the Pennsylvania legislature pushed for vouchers. Students First PA, a pro-voucher group, beat the drum for sending public tax dollars to unregulated private and religious schools.
But the Pennsylvania Legislature soundly rejected a much scaled-down version of a voucher bill last week. The voucher defeat in Pennsylvania contains important lessons for New Jersey legislators considering similar legislation for the Garden State.
In Pennsylvania, both Democrat and Republican legislators cited the all-too-familiar and well established reasons for opposing vouchers: the diversion of public money to private and parochial schools, the lack of support for vouchers among public school parents, and the decline in state funding for public schools.
Legislators in our neighboring state appear unwilling to revisit this unpopular legislation soon. House Republican Whip Stan Saylor said, “It’s highly unlikely that it would be reconsidered at any time during this current session. We gave it a try. At some point, you have to recognize that the votes aren’t there and say, ‘OK, let’s move on to the other important issues.’”
Pennsylvania legislators even rejected a proposal to expand the current Education Improvement Tax Credit, which costs the state $75 million in public funds. The EITC gives tax credits to corporations that provide funding for student scholarships. NJ’s voucher bill, the so-called “Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would provide corporations one-for-one tax credits in exchange for contributions to voucher funds for students to attend private and parochial schools.
For years, the NJ voucher bill has languished in the Legislature. Like Pennsylvania, there have been several versions, with the number and names of districts, as well as the cost to the State Treasury, constantly changing depending on the political winds. For months, rumors swirled that the voucher bill would be re-introduced and pushed through the current lame duck legislative session. Now there’s talk about a new bill for the new legislature that will be officially installed in January.
The fact is, when it comes to vouchers the majority of NJ legislators, along with NJ taxpayers, share the same view as their Pennsylvania counterparts. They are wary of a bill that takes money from public schools and gives it to institutions that are unaccountable to taxpayers, don’t have to follow the same federal and state regulations that public schools do, and haven’t been able to improve student performance in states where voucher schemes have been implemented.
Governor Christie has made his position clear: he wants a statewide voucher program and is looking to get that started in poor communities. NJ legislators have, and rightly so, balked at supporting a scheme that is not backed up by research or experience and will hurt public school children. In 2012, let’s redouble our efforts to make sure our legislators are as courageous and thoughtful as their Pennsylvania colleagues. Let’s make sure NJ stays voucher free.
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