Assembly Panel Clears Controversial Private School Scholarship Bill

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TRENTON – Last week, the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee unanimously approved a controversial bill that would establish a pilot program to encourage private corporations to pay for private school scholarships for low-income students in chronically failing public schools was released Thursday night by an Assembly panel.

The bill, which is sponsored in the state Senate by Ray Lesniak (D-Union County), would create the Opportunity Scholarship Act to allow some children in Asbury Park, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield, and Trenton to receive scholarships to attend private school.

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It is opposed by the New Jersey Education Association and some Democrats.

“We can improve our public schools but you don’t do that by abandoning them and disinvesting in them,” said state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex County.)

Other lawmakers support the bill. “With the Committee’s action today, New Jersey stands poised to offer real, immediate help to children and families of limited means who are currently trapped in chronically failing school districts through no fault of their own,” said state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R- Union County.)

The bill establishes a five-year pilot program to provide tax credits to corporations that contribute to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to low-income children to attend a nonpublic school or an out-of-district public school.

To be eligible to receive a scholarship, the low-income child must either attend a chronically failing school or attend a nonpublic school, but reside in a school district in which a chronically failing school is located.

The bill defines a chronically failing school as one in which, for the past two school years, at least 40 percent of the students did not pass both the language arts and mathematics subject areas of the state assessments; or at least 65 percent of the students did not pass either the language arts or mathematics subject areas.

The school must also be located in Asbury Park, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Perth Amboy, Plainfield and Trenton.

A child is considered low-income if the child lives in a household in which the income does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

Under the pilot program, a tax credit will be equal to 100 percent of the contribution a corporation makes to a qualified scholarship organization. The total tax credit of all participating corporations would be capped at an amount to be determined by the Director of the Division of Taxation as sufficient to fund the maximum number of scholarships authorized by the bill in each school year.

The bill limits tax credits in the first year to $24 million, then $48 million, $72 million, $96 million and $120 million in the subsequent years.

The bill will now go to an Assembly budget panel for more consideration.


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