The Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would provide tax credits to companies that help struggling families to send their children to private or parochial schools in New Jersey, passed an Assembly committee vote last Thursday after six hours of intense debate.

The act, which proposes that $360 million in scholarships be awarded over the next five years, has been characterized by supporters as a lifeline to families whose children want “an equal shot at the American dream” and blasted by critics as fiscally imprudent, undermining efforts to improve the public schools, and potentially breaching the constitutional wall between church and state.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), a primary co-sponsor of the bill, A2810, argued that it will help children who are not being well served in blighted areas and also strengthen the state’s network of private and parochial schools. Other primary co-sponsors are Assemblymen Angel Fuentes (D-5), Alex DeCroce (R-26), and Jay Webber (R-26).

“The state has an obligation to its children over an institution,” Schaer said. “It’s not an either/or. It’s not either you support the public schools or parochial and private schools. These are not mutually exclusive.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, speaking in support of the bill before the Commerce and Economic Development Committee of the State Assembly, where it passed last week in a step along the way toward a vote in the Assembly, argued that it would provide a competitive education to children who might fall through the cracks before long-range improvement happens.

“[This bill] will not take away from what’s happening in Newark … to change our schools, but it will help one child, two children, their parents,” he said. “It’s about time we give some small sliver of hope to parents who are desperate for that in our city…. Give them the same equal shot at the American dream.”

The Orthodox Union supports the bill and testified at last Thursday’s committee hearing.

“We are very supportive of the idea,” Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the OU, told The Jewish Standard. “It’s fantastic from the perspective of the Jewish day-school community. Pennsylvania and Florida have programs exactly like this that have raised millions for Jewish education. From the tikkun olam side, there are kids in New Jersey who are in failing schools and need help. They are not Jewish kids, but we care about every child. Education is a civil rights issue.”

The bill has brought supporters together across political, religious, and racial lines, according to Beigelman.

“You are seeing Democrats and Republicans, urban and suburban leaders support this. You’re seeing both sides of the aisle, folks from inner city, rural and urban areas all together. The coalition of supporters here is so broad it’s really just the teachers union that’s opposed,” he said.

The bill has been described in some quarters as “revenue neutral for the state,” in that it would provide tax breaks to companies in exchange for their sponsorship of students’ attendance at private or parochial schools.

However, opponents and even some boosters note that the scholarship money the bill would award via tax breaks to corporations would be lost to the state.

Yet some advocates argue that, since the bill would result in more students attending private and parochial schools, it would ultimately save state resources given the high costs of public education.

Some local politicians who oppose the bill characterized it as potentially unfair to those students who will not be beneficiaries.

“Some people say, ‘We’d rather save a few than none,'” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) representing Englewood, Teaneck, Hackensack, and Tenafly. “I don’t buy that. I’m concerned with children being left behind in failing districts and unable to go to private school.”

She added, “I think this voucher program will pit parents and students in failing districts against each other and instead the state should help them come together to benefit the public schools in their community.”

Other local politicians criticized what they see as the bill’s financial imprudence. Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-38) expressed skepticism about the claim by some advocates that the bill will be revenue neutral for the state.

“I am no CPA, but how can this bill be revenue neutral?” Voss said. She added that the system, especially state workers’ and teachers’ pension funds, are already financially strapped due to previous governors’ allocation of money from these funds for other uses.

“How can you take money out of a system that is already insufficient?” she said.

Subsidizing of some children’s education at parochial schools would breach the constitutional wall separating church and state, according to Voss. Moreover, the bill would deprive children sent to parochial schools of exposure to children from different religious and cultural backgrounds, undermining a central tenet of the public schools’ mission, she contended.

“If you don’t have social contact with people different from you, whether religiously, culturally, or racially, ignorance of people’s cultures and beliefs is the thing that brings about prejudice,” said Voss. “Public funding of religious schools is segregating kids based on religious beliefs.”

While noting that parents have every right to choose religious education for their children, Voss said she believes families, not government, should foot the bill for that choice.

Schaer acknowledged that $360 million – the maximum scholarship money that can be awarded under the bill over the course of five years – are “funds the state will not see,” but he contends that because proponents expect the legislation to encourage more families to send their children to parochial and private schools, it will end up costing taxpayers less money than it would to educate more students in public schools. He noted that several private and parochial schools have closed in recent years in the districts he serves.

Regarding the church/state issue, Schaer said he expects any final version of the bill to contain a provision directing state resources toward elements of parochial school life that are not religious.

There is a Senate and an Assembly version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The next stop for the Assembly version of the bill is the budget committee, which will vote on it in March. If it passes there, the entire Assembly will decide its fate. The Senate version of the bill is up for a general vote later in the year.