Garden State Victory!: N.J. School Voucher Plan Derailed For This Year

New Jersey's voucher bill is dead -- for this year.

With all of the hubbub over today’s ruling on health care at the Supreme Court, it’s easy for other stories to get overlooked. Here’s one from New Jersey that’s shouldn’t: Gov. Chris Christie has conceded that his school voucher plan is dead for this year.

Christie was asked about the matter during a recent town hall meeting in Mahwah. He said the bill was dead and blamed its derailment on Sheila Oliver, the state Assembly speaker, who Christie said refuses to move the bill.

“Bottom line, it is not going to happen this year,” Christie said. “But hang in there ….I am going to continue to push for it, and hopefully we can get Sheila Oliver to do the right thing and post that bill for the people of New Jersey.”

The legislative situation may be a little more complex than Christie will say publicly. While the voucher bill did pass committees in the Assembly and Senate, there was no guarantee that it was going to clear the full chambers. In fact, many legislators had expressed concerns about the bill.

Former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio summed up some of these concerns in an excellent op-ed blasting vouchers.

Florio praised public schools as a “uniquely American institution” and criticized voucher boosters who “would segregate our most motivated students in such schools and transfer them to private and parochial schools. The vast majority of remaining students, 85 to 90 percent, would be intellectual residue.”

Continued Florio, “Voucher supporters, rather than committing to improve educational opportunity for all, run up a white flag of surrender on the hallowed American tradition of universal education – opting instead for a European-style bifurcated system of quality education to some and a lesser system for the rest. Equality for all is apparently too much of an effort.”

Had vouchers passed in New Jersey, we at AU have no doubts that most of the money would have ended up in the coffers of religious schools. New Jersey has a large Catholic school system and many of its schools have been closing due to budget constraints. At the end of the day, the Garden State voucher plan would have amounted to a taxpayer-funded bailout of Catholic education.

And the state would have faced the same problems that have surfaced in Louisiana recently, where fundamentalist academies that offer sub-standard education are salivating at the idea of getting a taxpayer-funded windfall.

These developments in New Jersey are welcome, but we know this won’t be the end of it. Christie has vowed to push vouchers anew next year, and big-money interests and powerful sectarian lobbies are gearing up for another fight.

The issue remains alive in other states as well. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed funding for public education while proposing a wide-ranging voucher plan that would mainly benefit sectarian schools.

A new pro-voucher political action committee has been formed by wealthy business interests in Pennsylvania, and it plans to pour money into the coffers of legislators who back vouchers. Across the country, voucher advocate Betsy DeVos and her front group, Alliance for School Choice, spends millions pushing voucher plans in the states.

The collapse of Christie’s voucher plan in New Jersey is heartening, but this fight isn’t over yet – not in that state or in others. Defenders of the church-state wall and public education must remain vigilant.