New Jersey is ready, Mr. Florio

Many of you are aware that the New Jersey legislature is considering a tax credit scholarship bill modeled on Florida’s successful program. Sponsored by some prominent Democrats, this bill has inspired spirited debate in legislative committees, at rallies at the Capitol, and in the press. Today, former Democratic Gov. James Florio weighed in with a column published in the Newark Star Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper. I don’t often do this, but I couldn’t resist adding my own comments after the Governor’s (His column is below, and my comments are in italics).

By James J. Florio

The establishment of a system of universal public schools for all American children was a historic event for the world and the key to our nation’s development and prosperity. It provided unmatched literacy levels for our citizens and a commitment to excellence as a national goal. It enabled people from every country to be blended into one people, representing an amalgam of ideas of freedom and opportunity through upward mobility. Our diversity was molded in the public schools and became our strength. [Democracy does require a publicly funded education system that embraces and develops our diverse strengths into a unified whole, but empowerment and customization are necessary for this to occur. Top-down, command and control education systems are the wrong way to go. In this century we cannot expect a one-size-fits-all model, where we assign students to schools by zip codes, to work effectively.]

Now, we find — through proposed voucher systems — a rejection of our unifying universal educational model. [Not true. Parental empowerment is a part of a new, more democratic model of publicly-funded education. The old model gave taxpayer dollars to a monopoly system that disempowered parents by assigning students to schools by geography. The new empowerment model allows parents to choose from qualified, properly regulated suppliers of many kinds—without preference for who the provider is.]

The rationale is that some of our schools, especially those in urban and remote rural areas, are failing. Therefore, it is argued; let’s provide the more motivated students with vouchers to escape to private and religious schools. The majority of students left in such failing schools are collateral damage. [Florida’s is the largest school choice organization in the country and we argue just the opposite. If kids are thriving in their assigned public schools, we urge them to stay there. Why would a parent remove a thriving child? Choice programs are for students whose assigned schools are a poor match, even if that assigned school is the best in town. In Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, research shows the children leaving the public schools on scholarship are the worst performers at those schools.]

In espousing vouchers, we are tossing in the towel on the concept of traditional American education. The task of improving our failing schools to acceptable levels of learning is apparently too great a challenge for voucher advocates. They would unilaterally surrender in the upcoming global economic competition. [Our belief and intent is just the opposite. Parental empowerment advocates don’t want to toss in the towel—we want to strengthen and redefine public education for this new century. We believe sticking to the early 20th century—some might say 19th century—model of publicly-funded education is the surest route to economic surrender.]

The unraveling of this key component of the fabric of the American dream is but one problem associated with vouchers. The desire to use them for religious schools strikes at another fundamental tenet of our Constitution. The First Amendment clearly prohibits public funding for religious activities. The courts have always found such funding to violate the “Establishment Clause.” [This assertion is factually incorrect. In the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found a voucher program serving low income K-12 students did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. They reasoned that, like the GI Bill, parents are the ones receiving aid and making independent choices. Interestingly, the governor is forgetting about an existing voucher program in New Jersey for pre-k children, under which thousands of parents use taxpayer funds to send their kids to religious schools.]

A supreme irony is that as our foreign policy seeks to foster secular democracies in the Middle East, we would have our government start to finance religious institutions. [I’m disappointed the governor would make such an inflammatory statement. Does he believe the GI Bill and New Jersey’s pre-k voucher program are threats to secular democracy?]

A particularly insidious aspect of this development is how we would finance vouchers. Notwithstanding dramatic revenue shortfalls, voucher proposals would authorize businesses to write off of their state taxes — dollar for dollar — tax credits to pay for the vouchers, now slyly disguised as “scholarships.” Eight hundred million dollars lost to the state treasury. Fiscally responsible citizens understand that tax credits are tax expenditures by another name — both result in lost revenue. Tax breaks for businesses should be so labeled and not thought of as educational funding. [Where to begin. Per pupil funding of district schools in the “Abbott Districts” of New Jersey—urban areas with many low-income students—runs well over $20,000 per year. Governor, how much more per pupil is needed to “fix” public education in New Jersey? Gov. Florio then only looks at one side of the fiscal equation. The $800 million figure—which I might add would pay for 100,000 scholarships, a level that might take a decade to reach—is what tax credits would be given to companies who finance the scholarships. But Gov. Florio omits the fact that 100,000 children wouldn’t have to be educated in the public schools—at over $20,000 per student. That’s $2 billion the taxpayers of New Jersey wouldn’t have to spend. The net savings to the taxpayers would be $1.2 billion. Similar one-sided arguments were made in Florida until Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, the state’s official accounting agency, issued a report showing that the Florida program is already saving Florida taxpayers around $40 million with less than 30,000 enrolled.]

Finally, the voucher initiatives are part and parcel of a troubling set of developments that are shredding the very essence of traditional American values. Equal justice and opportunity are at risk from the growing bifurcation of our economy. The documentation is clear that while a small percentage of our affluent citizens capture a greater percentage of our income and national wealth, the vast majority of middle-class and working-class citizens fall further and further behind, their purchasing power diminishes and their lives become more stressed. [This program promotes equal opportunity by giving low-income parents greater purchasing power. New Jersey parents with enough means can move to a district with schools they like, or pay tuition to a private school. Low-income families lack these options. That Florio advocates maintaining these inequalities in the name of “equal justice and opportunity” is truly Orwellian.]

On another front, current proposals in Wisconsin and elsewhere threaten to eliminate workers’ rights to collective bargaining — not a prescription for social stability or economic justice. [Teacher unions in Wisconsin, New Jersey and every other state oppose school choice programs that empower low-income families. This hostility toward social and economic justice for low-income families and the hypocrisy it reflects is helping fuel the backlash against teacher unions.]

Now, we have this voucher initiative to further divide us into those who will be ready for the knowledge-based economy and those who will be left to fester in failing schools from which we have siphoned off the most motivated students. [Again, the children thriving in district-run schools won’t be the ones who leave.] All of this because we are not up to the challenges of fixing our entire educational system, leaving many of our children permanently behind the curve. [What is your solution governor? How much more money will it take to “fix” a system that disempowers teachers and families? New Jersey spends over $20,000 per student now. Will it take $30,000? $40,000?]

I believe we are better than that. [I believe you’re better than this column. And I believe your state is ready for a new, 21st Century definition of public education.]

Avatar photo

BY John Kirtley

Chairman of Florida scholarship organization for low-income students, Vice Chair of American Federation For Children, a national parental choice organization


Comments are closed.