Thursday, December 09, 2010
Asbury Park Press
As New Jerseyans go shopping for the holidays, many will be sure to check the price tags before making their purchases. If only they would do the same with public education, which is costing New Jersey residents more than they think.
A new poll conducted by Braun Research Inc. and released by the Foundation for Educational Choice found only 11 percent of New Jerseyans could identify the combined local, state and federal expenditures (more than $16,000 on average) spent per pupil in New Jersey public schools. The highest percentage of respondents — 30 percent — thought total per-pupil funding was less than $4,000. In Newark alone, per-pupil expenditures exceed $22,000.
A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Nov. 10 found that 59 percent of registered New Jersey voters thought state spending on public education was "not enough." No wonder New Jerseyans think that way. As our poll found, they think per-pupil funding is at levels not seen since the 1960s.
New Jerseyans aren't the only ones who lack such knowledge. Many Americans are unaware of public education funding levels, particularly because they don't have direct access to where and how the money is spent. But they want such purchasing power, as evidenced by their opinions on school choice.
When asked by BRI where they would educate their child if given a choice, 40 percent chose regular public schools whereas 59 percent wanted different schools. Of those, 39 percent would send their children to private schools, 12 percent to public charter schools, 7 percent in home schools and 1 percent to virtual (or online) schools.
The two programs that would allow New Jerseyans to shop for those schools also received a majority of support from voters polled: vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. When those measures were defined, 69 percent of voters supported both. So should the state Legislature. Parents deserve the right to decide how their children are educated.
Notably, this is not a partisan issue. Solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents polled were in favor of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. With such broad, statewide support, and so many New Jerseyans concerned about the track their public schools are on, now's the time to choose a new path, and some lawmakers are advocating just that.
State Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, and Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, R-Union, have introduced legislation that would create a pilot tax-credit scholarship program providing 4,000 scholarships in its first year of enactment, annually increasing to 20,000 by the fifth year. Assembly sponsors are Angel Fuentes, D-Camden, and Alex DeCroce, R-Morris. Called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the bill has stalled in the Legislature.
In Pennsylvania, a similar program has been a huge success, providing private school scholarships to some 38,000 youngsters, and saving taxpayers millions. New Jersey could do the same, because no matter what the budgetary climate is, the state could give parents access to part of the funding allotted for their children.
Under the Opportunity Scholarship Act, students in grades K-8 could receive scholarships equal to the greater of $6,000 or 40 percent of the prior school year's cost per pupil; for students in grades 9-12, they could receive scholarships equal to the greater of $9,000 or 59 percent of the per-pupil cost.
Not only would that scenario provide fiscal savings, it also would give New Jersey families educational options and more money than they think is being spent per pupil. And if given the gift of school choice, parents will know full well how much is being spent on their children, because they'll be the ones spending it.
They think per-pupil funding is at levels not seen since the 1960s.