New Jersey's 21st Legislative District

Senator Tom Kean, Jr.

Senator Tom Kean

Give New Jersey Kids a Chance to Escape Failing Schools

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The following editorial by Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean appeared in The Star-Ledger on February 10, 2011:

Most communities in New Jersey are blessed with great schools, good teachers and a local district that prepares children to enter the work force or go to college. By and large, New Jersey public schools produce good outcomes for the majority of their pupils.

But in a handful of communities — our state’s poorest and most dangerous — children and their parents face dire circumstances. Despite billions of dollars spent on education in these cities, their schools are failing nearly every student day in and day out, each and every year, with no end in sight.

These districts need big structural changes, both inside their walls and outside in their surrounding communities, to become successful. Those changes will take a great deal of time to take hold. Quality education in these schools is many years away, under the best circumstances.

Unless we provide an immediate alternative, children currently attending these schools will not receive an adequate education.

That is why I believe that allowing parents in these chronically failing districts the choice of a well-performing public, private or parochial school anywhere in the state is so important. It provides an immediate solution that gets students out of failing schools today.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by a broad coalition of Republicans and Democrats, will do just that in New Jersey and awaits final action by the Legislature.

While I believe that the momentum is on the side of breaking the status quo — and giving kids in places such as Camden, Newark and Trenton a chance for a better future — there are many special interests working against it.

Unfortunately, opponents are spreading misinformation and distortions about this legislation. I’d like to debunk a few of the biggest myths being passed around by those hoping to kill the Opportunity Scholarship Act and the hope it represents for thousands of children:

  • The act is in no way an assault on public education. It creates a five-year trial program that allows a select number of children in the 13 worst-performing school districts to choose another public school, or a private or parochial school. That can hardly be classified as an assault on public education.
  • The act does not give state money to private schools in the middle of a budget crisis. The program will be paid for by tax-deductible private donations and is budget neutral to the state.
  • The act will not wipe out state aid to urban schools. Any public school that loses a student to the program will retain a substantial portion of the state aid allocated to that child, while offering smaller class sizes to those who remain.

Finally, let me address a criticism of the program that makes me angry.

It is true that 25 percent of the scholarships are set aside for families who already have a child in private school. The people we are talking about are the working poor, who happened to have the wherewithal to give their children a better life by making almost unfathomable sacrifices.

I defy any critic of the Opportunity Scholarship Act to look into the eyes of a single mom, who is working three jobs to make ends meet and keep her child out of a failing school, and say her child is undeserving of participation in this program.

I’ll stand up for that single mom and her child any day of the week.

This legislation deserves a debate based on facts. If it fails to be enacted into law based purely on the merits, so be it. Reasonable people can disagree on big policy matters such as education reform.

However, children trapped in chronically failing school districts deserve an informed debate, not one full of scare tactics and distortions.

After all, we are talking about their lives and futures, not ours.

Tom Kean Jr. is the minority leader of the state Senate and a prime sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

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