Yesterday was the first day of National School Choice Week, and New Jersey kicked off the aspirational agenda with a series of panel discussions at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor The event was hosted by Bob Bowden of “Cartel” fame, a movie widely panned by the status quo edugensia. (He has a new site, Choice Media, which is a news clipping service/video archive/gift shop of all things ed reform.)
There were three parts of this conference: two panel discussions and an address by Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf. The first panel included Senator Mike Doherty and Assembly members Tony Bucco, Gabriela Mosquera, and Gary Schaer.
The second panel included Keith Benson of the Allied Clergy of NJ; Derrell Bradford of Better Education for Kids; Bob Garguilo, Chair of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Association; Kevin Jenkins of E3; Carlos Perez of the NJ Charter School Association; Rabbi Israel Teitelbaum of the Alliance for Free Choice in Education; and Victoria Jakelsky, who links school choice with arbitrary distractions like battling childhood innoculations. (One audience member: “she’s SO off the reservation.”)
Here’s a few themes that popped up during presentations and discussions:
- The NJ Legislature is “dysfunctional” and “weak.” Its paralysis is compounded by pending November elections. Expect nothing to get done this year.
- There are currently 30,000 kids in NJ enrolled in charter schools and another 20,000 on waiting lists.
- Next year there be 6,000 kids in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.
- There’s lots of bipartisan support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, specifically for the pared-down Assembly version, but Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver won’t assign the bill to a committee, thus preventing a vote. (OSA proposes to offer scholarships to kids in NJ’s poorest cities, underwritten by corporate contributions.)
- NJ’s charter school law, decades-old now, should be revised so that there’s more than one authorizer, better accountability, and funding and facilities equity with traditional public schools.
More generally, the panelists seemed riven by two non-complementary agendas. Legislators Bucco and Doherty, along with Rabbi Teitlebaum (who seems to play the role of Bucco’s Svengali), spent much of their time in the limelight touting a new bill, “New Jersey Parental Rights Program Act,” (S 504). (Bucco is the prime sponsor and Doherty is a co-sponsor.) This bill takes the worst parts of OSA and froths it up with an infusion of Tea Party fervor. Elements include forcing public school districts to offer “scholarships” to any kids who want to go to parochial schools, with the per pupil amount tied to in-district spending and no academic accountability. From S 504:
[T]he department may not regulate the educational programs of a participating nonpublic school. The establishment of the program and the participation of nonpublic schools in the program shall not be construed to impose additional regulatory requirements on nonpublic schools beyond those reasonably necessary to enforce the provisions of this act. A participating nonpublic school shall be provided with maximum flexibility in providing for the educational needs of participating students.
The bill neglects a key element of OSA, needs-testing, opening the program up to all kids regardless of socio-economic level.
There’s a whole anti-Abbott vibe here, especially with Senator Doherty touting his wacky “Fair Funding Act” (which ignores the educational needs of impoverished kids) and shrieking, “20% of the kids are getting 80% of the money!”
This narrow, unabashedly religious agenda (new drinking game: chug when Victoria Jakelsky says “God-given”) undermines the intent of the real reformers – Cerf, Bradford, Perez, Garguilo, and Schaer (who specifically rebutted Doherty in his opening comments). The latter group appears fully committed to improving NJ’s system of public schools and providing equitable access for all kids.
Here’s an unsolicited word of advice: the NJ school choice movement needs to disentangle itself the from the teacher union-bashing, Palin-esque special interest groups that impair a truly focused and effective approach to education reform.