If you were given a chance to change the life of a child, to give low-income families the opportunity to escape failing or dangerous schools-and to do so while saving the state money – would you take that chance?
The obvious answer: Yes.
Currently, the price of educating a student in a New Jersey public school is approximately $18,000, with certain school districts paying even more. Asbury Park, for example, pays nearly $40,000 per student (according to an audit performed by the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey), yet 100 percent of the students in this district attend “failing schools.” These students deserve better.
The Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow students from low-income families to obtain scholarships to attend private schools or out-of-district public schools of their choice. These scholarships would offer a maximum of $8,000 for elementary school students and $11,000 for high school students, saving school districts roughly half the cost of educating each scholarship recipient.
Today, many low-income parents cannot choose the best school for that child; they lack the funds to attend private school or to move to a better school district. The OSA moves us closer to a time when a child’s opportunities are not determined by zip code or income level.
Many criticisms have been leveled at the OSA, but after several revisions to the proposed law, these criticisms have been either addressed or debunked.
For example, some opponents argue that state funds cannot go to non-public schools. This is false because the New Jersey Constitution has no Blaine Amendment, which forbids state funds to sectarian institutions. Moreover, OSA scholarship money goes directly from private donors to scholarship organizations to disadvantaged students. The student then decides which participating school to fund, whether public or non-public. The state neither collects the money nor decides where it ends up – a method the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld.
When critics worried that the OSA would divert funds from local public schools, it was revised to pass on the savings as well as the costs to local school districts. Although school districts bear the costs of their students’ scholarships, they also avoid the costs of educating those students. Since the average school district spends $18,000 on each student, districts will save at least $10,000 or $8,000 for each scholarship recipient in elementary or high school, respectively. The money saved by the OSA will allow school districts to invest even more money in the remaining students.
When opponents claimed that OSA funds could be used for current non-public school students to continue attending non-public school, the OSA was revised. Under the new bill, only current public school students or students entering grades one, six, or nine (entry points for elementary, junior high, and high school, respectively) can receive OSA scholarships. To claim that the OSA would subsidize existing private school students would be at best mistaken, and at worst disingenuous.
Finally, some object that the OSA will help only a small percentage of the students in the failing schools. This is irrelevant. When a building is on fire and only a few occupants can be saved, should the firemen give up because they cannot save everyone? No, they should attempt to rescue as many people as they can. Indeed, we would rather help more children escape failing or costly schools, but many legislators want to first test the OSA as a pilot program.
We are confident that if implemented, the OSA’s success will speak for itself.