Chris Christie needs to step up for school choice


By Erik Telford

Gov. Chris Christie has made national headlines as a mover and shaker on education policy, but he still has work to do in New Jersey to ensure that parents have maximum power over their children’s educational path.

TAKE THE STEP: The New Jersey and Gov. Chris Christie deserve credit for allowing parents to enroll children in schools outside their district instead of settling for the one assigned to them by the fiat of Trenton.

Christie has championed himself as a reform of public education, reforming teacher tenure to reward performance, expanding charter schools and reinvigorating chronically underperforming urban school districts.

But to achieve real reform, he now needs to expand the state’s school choice program to allow families to direct their tax dollars to the school that will best suit their child’s needs.

New Jersey families have had access to a limited school choice program since 2010, when Christie signed a bill allowing up to 10 percent of each districts’ students to attend any other public school in the state whose enrollment is below capacity. Through this program, parents have been able to “shop” for public elementary, middle and high schools much in the way young adults can shop for colleges.

Whether a family is looking for a particular sports, art or music program, a more diverse student body or small class sizes, the school choice law gives them options they did not previously have.

The state deserves credit for allowing parents to enroll children in schools outside their district instead of settling for the one assigned to them by the fiat of Trenton. However, by restricting school choice to public schools alone, New Jersey is putting low-income parents at a significant disadvantage.

An opportunity scholarship program ― similar to the successful ones that have been implemented in Ohio, Indiana and Louisiana, among other states ― would give all parents, regardless of their income or ZIP code, true power over their children’s future.

Parents fund education through their tax dollars, and opportunity scholarships would allow them to direct those tax dollars to whichever school will do the best job of unlocking their child’s potential.

For many families, this will be the assigned public school, a neighboring public school, or a charter school ― all of which are options under New Jersey’s school choice law. Yet for some students, a private, faith-based, virtual, or other specialized or nontraditional school best fits the bill.

For parents with means, these nonpublic schools already are options, but opportunity scholarships would level the playing field by ensuring that all families have access to the full slate of educational options available.

Christie attempted to implement a pilot opportunity scholarship program in a handful of districts last year, but met resistance in the Legislature. The governor needs to make a stronger push for school choice this year, especially after receiving some bipartisan support in the State Assembly from Democrats Angel Fuentes and Lou Greenwald.

It’s also time for Christie to stand taller on school funding reform.

New Jersey has been hamstrung by the Abbott decision, which required that failing school districts receive ever-increasing state funding, regardless of the return on this investment.

As governor, Christie has the power to appoint justices to the state Supreme Court who may be inclined to reconsider Abbott, but thus far he hasn’t been effective in shepherding his nominees through the confirmation process.

Christie projects himself as a school reformer, but he still has plenty of work to do.

Hopefully, when education reform comes up for debate in Trenton this session, legislators of both parties will give stronger consideration to opening up the full spectrum of schooling options ― public, private, parochial, charter and specialized ― to all families. Access to quality education shouldn’t be as hard as crossing the George Washington Bridge. Allowing parents to use their own tax money to send their children to the right school is not only logical and feasible–it’s the right thing to do.

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. National School Choice Week is Jan. 26-Feb 1.

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