On Wednesday March 25, 2015, DVAU President Janice Rael testified at the New Jersey Senate Budget Committee hearing in Sewell, NJ, to oppose the line item in the FY2016 budget that calls for $2 million for the “Opportunity Scholarship Act,” a voucher scheme that has been repeatedly defeated when brought up for votes.
Janice was joined at the hearing by Sharon Krengel of the Education Law Center, who said afterward that all of the committee was paying close attention to Janice’s impassioned talk and caution against school vouchers.
Below is the testimony that Janice Rael delivered at the hearing:
My name is Janice Rael and I am a lifetime resident of New Jersey and the vice-president and acting President of the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I am speaking on behalf of the Delaware Valley chapter, and all of Americans United’s members and supporters in the state.
Governor Chris Christie’s FY16 Budget requests $2 million of taxpayer funds to create a voucher program that allows children in failing schools to attend either out of district public schools or private schools. Our members strongly oppose this request because instead of providing equal access to high quality education, vouchers have been proven ineffective, lack accountability to taxpayers, deprive students of rights provided to public schools students, threaten religious freedom and fund discrimination. I thank you for allowing me to the opportunity to explain further.
First of all, it is reasonable to expect that this voucher program, like all other programs would primarily fund private religious schools, but government funding of religious education is inappropriate and constitutionally suspect.
* Because most parochial schools either cannot or do not wish to separate the religious components of the education they offer from the academic programs, these schools must be funded by voluntary contributions, not taxation.
* A voucher program that funds religious schools undermines a fundamental principle of religious freedom: taxpayer should be asked to support the religious teaching or ministry with tenets and teachings that contradict his or her own.
* It would also violate the New Jersey Constitution, which specifically prohibits any person from being “obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches or places of worship . . .contrary to what he believes. . . . ”i
Second, private school vouchers do not improve academic achievement for students.
* Study after study of the District of Columbia,ii Milwaukee,iii and Clevelandiv school voucher programs show that students offered vouchers do not perform significantly better in reading and math than students in public schools.
* When Congress created the Washington, DC, voucher program, it designated students from “schools in need of improvement” as the highest priority for the program — like the “chronically failing schools” indicated in the Budget. Yet, each year the U.S. Department of Education has studied the DC voucher program, the use of a voucher resulted in no statistically significant improvement in reading or math for students who applied from these “schools in need of improvement.”v
Third, voucher programs lack accountability to taxpayers.
* Private schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers do not face the same accountability standards as public schools.
* Private voucher schools do not have to comply with the same teacher standards, curriculum, and testing requirements as the public schools.
* Even where voucher programs have some accountability measures, however, oversight is lacking. A lack of oversight has been found in voucher programs around the country. For example, in Milwaukee, a lack of oversight has led to
students attending voucher schools in strip malls, rundown office buildings, and abandoned factories with dirty carpet, peeling walls and lights that don’t work
Finally, students using vouchers lose rights provided to them in the public schools
* This is because, despite receiving public money, private schools do not have to adhere to the same civil rights laws, and do not face the same public accountability standards including those in the No Child Left Behind Act, Title IX, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that all public schools must meet.
* Additionally, students who attend private schools with vouchers are stripped of their First Amendment, due process, and other constitutional and statutory rights offered to them and guaranteed in public schools.
* Unfortunately, many parents and students are not even aware of this when they accept the voucher.
As I’ve stated today, there are many reasons the inclusion of a voucher program in the Budget is bad policy including that it would not help our students, would harm our public schools, would cost tremendous sums, and would undermine our civil rights. Thank you for allowing me to explain just a few.
i N. J. CONST. art. I ¶3 iiU.S. Dep’t of Ed., Evaluation of the D.C. Scholarship Program: Final Report (June 2010) (Although the 2009 study showed a marginal gain for some students in reading (but notably, not for the program’s targeted group, students from schools in need of improvement), the 2010 Final Report said “[t]here is no conclusive evidence that the [program] affected student achievement” and earlier findings of modest gains “could be due to chance” and were no longer statistically significant.); U.S. Dep’t of Ed., Evaluation of the D.C. Scholarship Program: Impact After 3 Years (Apr. 2009); U.S. Dep’t of Ed., Evaluation of the D.C. Scholarship Program: Impact After 2 Years (June 2008); U.S. Dep’t of Ed., Evaluation of the D.C. Scholarship Program: Impact After 1 Year (June 2007). iii Witte, Wolf, et al., MPCP Longitudinal Educational Growth Study Third Year Report (Apr. 2010); Witte, Wolf, et al., MPCP Longitudinal Educational Growth Study Second Year Report (Mar. 2009); Witte, Wolf, et al., MPCP Longitudinal Education Growth Study Baseline Report (Feb. 2008); Witte, Achievement Effects of Milwaukee Voucher Program (Feb. 1997); Witte, et al., Fifth Year Report Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (Dec. 1995). iv Plucker, et al., Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Summary Report 1998-2004 (Feb. 2006); Evaluation of the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, Executive Report 1998-2002 (Feb. 2006). v The study broke down students into six subgroups, which include: students who entered the program from SINI schools, students who entered from non-SINI schools, males, females, students who entered in the higher two-thirds of the applicant test-score performance distribution, and those who entered from the lower two-thirds of the applicant test-score performance distribution. 2010 U.S. Dep’t of Ed. Report at 39.
DVAU owes much thanks to Americans United’s State Legislative Counsel Amrita Singh for her hard work in preparing this testimony, and to Sharon Krengel from the Education Law Center for providing detailed information about the FY16 budget, as well as joining us at the hearing. DVAU is part of the ELC’s coalition of public school supporters, Our Children/Our Schools. Together, we are all fighting against the school voucher scheme that Governor Christie is trying to slip into the 2016 budget.