Supporters of a proposed law that would provide private-school scholarships for students in underperforming school districts took part in an “American Idol”-style text vote designed to pressure lawmakers to take action on the controversial legislation.
Yesterday’s text campaign was promoted by clergy members during Sunday services in nearly 20 Essex County churches, including congregations in East Orange and Montclair. The majority of the churches taking part yesterday are located in Newark.
“It’s a way to tell legislators your people really want this,” Amy Simon, a spokeswoman for E3, Excellent Education for Everyone, a New Brunswick-based reform group, said yesterday. “It’s been eight years.”
The legislation, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, would allow private businesses to pay a portion of their state taxes into a scholarship fund that could be used by students in a handful of districts across New Jersey, including Newark, if they attend schools plagued by low graduation rates and test scores.
The act as it it now written would authorize the introduction of the scholarships on a trial basis, with funding for only 20,000 students statewide. Students would get up to $9,000 in scholarship money to attend private elementary schools and up to $16,000 to attend high school.
Similar scholarship programs have been rolled out in struggling districts elsewhere in the nation, including Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Opponents of the law say that the scholarships would deprive failing schools of even more funding and may violate the principle of the separation of church and state, since the scholarships could be used at religious schools. But supporters say the scholarships would provide vital help for poor, inner-city youth who are being deprived of a decent education.
New Jersey’s OSA has been discussed by lawmakers for years but has yet to be voted on, as the proposed legislation has been repeatedly reworked at the behest of Democrats in the Legislature. One of the main purposes of yesterday’s campaign, Simon said, was to get the Opportunity Scholarship Act into committee, the first step towards a full vote.
Pastor Lance Mann, of First Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Newark, said yesterday’s vote at his church “went great.”
“Our church was very receptive to the issue,” Mann said, adding that “More and more of them will express their displeasure with the school system and their desire to fix it.”
“Our kids are in trouble and we need to rescue them,” he said .
More text campaigns in favor of the OSA are scheduled for the coming weeks.
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