N.J. Democrats Embrace School Choice

For years, the Democratic Party has resisted education reforms that give parents greater freedom to choose their children’s schools. But a group of New Jersey Democrats is now breaking ranks with its party in a move that could have implications across the nation.

Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) and four Democrat colleagues are sponsoring legislation to create a corporate tax credit program that would allow businesses to provide tuition scholarships to 4,000 low-income children in Camden, Newark, Orange and Trenton. These students could leave their public schools and attend private schools of their parents’ choice. Similar legislation has been proposed in the State Senate.

Cruz-Perez explains her support for this measure: “Expanding schooling and program options for low-income, often minority, students in urban school systems is the most immediate way to address poor educational prospects for these families. It is a necessary step and an urgent one that will also rebuild these neighborhoods and cities.”

This is an argument that parents understand. On Monday, hundreds of inner-city parents from across New Jersey will gather on the steps of the state capitol to rally in support of the measure. The New Jersey School Choice Alliance, a coalition of 40 civic groups from across the state, is leading the effort to bring school choice to the Garden State .

Supporters of the measure will face a powerful opponent: The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s 190,000-member teachers union. Teachers unions and other public school interest groups oppose school choice, viewing any attempt to give parents greater ability to remove their children from the public school system as a threat to their livelihood.

The teachers union won’t be the only obstacle school choice backers will face. Both Acting Governor Richard Codey and Governor-elect Jon Corzine are on record against school vouchers. To build support, the bill’s sponsors included a provision to allow for business contributions that would aid public schools in the cities, but it’s unlikely that this will be enough to win over traditional union allies.

Developments in New Jersey signal that school choice may finally be reaching a tipping point. Until now, few Democrats have broken their party’s traditional allegiance with teachers unions to embrace school choice. The few exceptions are noteworthy: Democratic Wisconsin State Representative Polly Williams was the lead sponsor of the pioneering Milwaukee voucher program. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was joined by Democratic Senators Robert Byrd, Diane Fienstein, and Joe Lieberman to bring school vouchers to the nation’s capital. But New Jersey shows that these notable few are now being joined by rank and file Democrats.

Supporting school choice should come naturally to Democrats. After all, Democrats cast themselves as advocates for poor urban populations—a constituency trapped in the worst public schools and desperately seeking new options. Low-income families now reject the party line that public schools simply need more money and more time to improve. Money and time have been tried before without results.

The Rev. Reginald Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, explains his support for school choice: “It’s the right solution at the right time for the children and the schools in these cities. These children, cosigned to our urban schools, have no time to wait for access to effective schools and innovative programs.”

Parents and community leaders are right to put their faith in school choice, as over 100,000 children now benefit from scholarship programs across the nation. In fact, the proposed New Jersey program was inspired by a corporate tax credit program created in Pennsylvania in 2001. Similar school choice programs also exist in Arizona and Florida , and school voucher programs are helping children in Cleveland , Milwaukee , and Washington , D.C. If these programs are any guide, a scholarship program in New Jersey will increase parental satisfaction and boost student test scores.

Democrats supporting school choice are likely to discover that a vote for school choice is like a fine wine: it will only get better with time. Years from now—when the opportunity for inner-city parents to choose their children’s schools becomes the norm—these New Jersey legislators will be lauded for their leadership in putting these children’s futures ahead of special-interest groups. We can only hope their colleagues in the state House and Senate will muster the same courage.