Columnist: School Choice is Clearly the Right Option

reading-adolescent.jpgIt is one of those issues that is here to stay — an idea embraced by conservatives and the urban poor, and loathed by unions.

So begins one of the best columns I have read about school choice in some time.

On the off-chance you can’t access the column above, it’s reproduced in its entirety after the jump.

It is one of those issues that is here to stay — an idea embraced by conservatives and the urban poor, and loathed by unions. The idea is to give the urban poor the same option as the suburban rich, and let them choose a school for their children.

People can choose suburban schools if they can afford suburban real estate prices. Or, with enough resources, they have the option of sending the kids to Rutgers Prep or The Hun School.

For the urban poor, there is no choice. Their kids must go to the local Washington School. Kids at The Hun School arrive in BMWs. Kids at Washington pass through metal detectors. I do exaggerate, but not by much.

The Urban Schools Scholarship Act (A-257, S-1332) is designed to do something about this. It would give corporations tax credits to provide scholarships to children in one of four urban districts — Newark, Camden, Trenton and Orange. The children could attend schools that are qualified by the IRS as having tax-exempt status. In other words, religious schools.

The act recognizes the obvious: that few parents, given the choice, would send their kid to a public school in Newark. Give parents the ability to be pro-choice, and they would likely send their children elsewhere.

The act would serve several purposes, said state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill. Whenever an urban parochial school closes for economic reasons — such as the planned closing of St. Peter the Apostle High School in New Brunswick — many students are put into the crowded public school system.

“Private schools take a lot of pressure off public schools,” said Lesniak.

Also, said Lesniak, “The private school system is a form of competition. Competition is very healthy for the public schools.”

“I am not blind to the angst of my constituents, when it comes to school quality,” said Dana Rone, who represents the Central Ward on the Newark City Council.

In testimony before the Education Committee in March, Rone said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that parents do not know what is happening to our children in the schools … Most parents simply cannot stand to watch their children’s lives dry up because they cannot afford to move to better school districts, or enroll their children in better-performing non-public schools.”

According to Rone’s testimony, whenever a Catholic school or private school has closed in Newark it has cost state and local taxpayers an additional $2 million to absorb the students into public schools — with the emphasis on state taxpayers, since 90 percent of funding for Newark’s public schools comes in the form of state aid. In Camden, it’s 98 percent.

While school choice has been called a right-wing conservative cause, “Giving parents a choice couldn’t be a more liberal idea,” said Dan Gaby, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, whose liberal credentials include his being state chairman when Jimmy Carter ran for president.

So what’s not to like? Parents in the four experimental districts can be selective about school choice, while taxpayers throughout the rest of the state getg a break.

The cost. That’s what not to like, says state Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, chair of the Education Committee, who has yet to release the bill from committee.

A tax credit is not a tax deduction, she noted. Were a corporation to receive a tax credit for a contribution to a private urban school, the dollar it would contribute would be one less dollar into the state treasury.

“How can we afford it, if they take dollar for dollar?” she asked. “We’re looking to reduce the property tax burden, not add more to the burden.”

If corporations feel the need to add options for urban parents, said Turner, why not simply donate the money and accept the federal tax deduction for charitable giving.

What the legislation would do is put money in a specific pot, and support school options in districts where kids are locked into one inadequate option. What is not working well is the status quo. An experiment in four troubled districts is one worth trying.

Rick Malwitz’s column appears Sundays and Thursdays. His blog appears weekdays at www.thnt.com. Rmalwitz@thnt.com, (732) 565-7291.

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