The Asbury Park Press reports: It is a paradox of inverse proportions: A town whose school district has less than a 1 percent stake in a proposed law to help poor public students nonetheless emerging as the legislation’s most fervent promoter.A rally-like Senate committee hearing in March on the steps of the Statehouse Annex, for instance, turned out some 800 Lakewood residents in support of the so-called voucher bill, which would give low-income students scholarships to leave failing public schools. Of the dozen or so speakers who testified that day, more focused on Lakewood than any other municipality. Even one of the measure’s five sponsors is a Lakewood Township Committee member.
Barely any of Lakewood’s public school students will see a voucher; and still, “This piece of legislation will help us more than any other town,” according to Republican state Sen. Robert Singer, who is also a Lakewood committeeman.
To understand why is to understand Lakewood.
While the other failing districts are expecting vouchers to move their students into private schools, this Central Jersey town is looking for money to keep them there – and the pot is large.
In Lakewood, private school students outnumber their public school counterparts four to one – a unique situation enhanced by the fact that they also comprise up to 20 percent of all low-income private school students in the state, far more than any other municipality, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Match that population with an inconspicuous addendum to the bill that reserves 25 percent of the $360 million in school vouchers for low-income students already in private schools, and Lakewood actually stands to win big – about a fifth of some 10,000 to 15,000 vouchers worth $90 million. Such a stake not only explains the township’s formidable lobbying presence in Trenton but laminates it as the poster child for what public education backers and unions see as wrong with the pending legislation.
“It exemplifies our fundamental objections to this bill statewide,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a public education advocacy group. “Instead of helping public schools, it’s sending a significant amount of public dollars to religious schools.”
The Opportunity Scholarship Act, which recently passed in the Senate’s Economic Growth Committee, is a five-year proposal meant to hand vouchers worth either $6,000 or $9,000 to poor families with students in 181 failing public schools so they can send them elsewhere. This would most serve the large metropolitan districts dominated by poor minorities and low-performing schools.
“The image portrayed of this (OSA) is to help minority kids, which by implication means Newark and Camden,” said Bruce Baker, a professor in Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education who has analyzed the bill’s Lakewood factor on his blog. “But if we look at the numbers and groups most supportive of this, you get a different picture.”
Some public education advocates, in fact, found it odd when Lakewood showed up in a similar 2008 piece of legislation as one of seven districts to receive vouchers, alongside Camden, Elizabeth, Newark, Orange, Paterson and Trenton. The bill was eventually rejected.
“These cities are among the poorest in the state, if not the nation,” Sciarra said. “Lakewood doesn’t seem to fit this profile.”
Proponents don’t deny the possible windfalls to private schools, arguing the OSA should help all deprived students. By doing so, they say, it will save from closure parochial schools fraught with extra tuition and dwindling donations.
Such subsidies would benefit no community more than Lakewood, where 62 Orthodox Jewish schools are filled with students of cash-strapped families sending them there, not as a luxury but as a condition of their faith. Tashbar, for example, is an all-boys elementary school with 56 percent of its 300 students requiring full or partial tuition aid, according to its principal, Meir Hertz. The ratio is almost equal to those students in the public middle school receiving free or reduced-priced lunches. Five years ago, only about 35 percent of Tashbar students needed financial aid, Hertz said.
“The families are rapidly growing, and the current difficult economic conditions have severely impacted our parents, supporters and donors,” he said by phone recently.
This year, a girls’ elementary school of 65 students shut its doors after declaring bankruptcy. Another barely escaped closing.
Gerald Stein, a father with four children in private elementary schools, said that while he is not economically eligible, the vouchers would help more affluent families like his indirectly by shouldering some of responsibilities of donations.
“Plus, the fact that they wouldn’t have to operate on such a shoestring budget means enhancing the programs they can offer,” he said.
Supporters also insist the vouchers would put pressure on the failing public schools to improve, while saving on taxes. According to the state’s education commissioner, a backer of the bill, the average cost per public school student is $19,000, considerably more than a voucher.
“Cost-savings for the taxpayer of allowing students to choose an education at a lower cost, I think, is almost a no-brainer,” Rabbi Shlomo Katz, a member of Igud, Lakewood Jewish schools’ equivalent to a board of education, said in his testimony before the statehouse crowd in Trenton. “The only reason we have failing districts today is because there is no competition in education.”
In Lakewood, however, the impact of the bill on the 5,000-student school district likely will be minimal. Only the middle school is on the voucher list, meaning about 526 students out of more than 77,000 statewide would be eligible for about $60,000 in vouchers, according to census data and figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. By comparison, private schools in Lakewood could be eligible for some $68.5 million in vouchers.
And awareness among district officials and parents has hardly surfaced. Board of Education members say the legislation hasn’t been discussed at meetings. Superintendent Lydia Silva did not return several calls seeking the district’s stance on the vouchers.
Yet upon hearing about the bill’s offerings, some parents welcomed the chance to relocate their children from a district that they feel has all but deserted them.
If I was able to get him out of here, I would be so for it,” Lillian Berrios said of her son, who enters the middle school next year and receives free lunches – a low-income indicator.
Even school board President Leonard Thomas, now the only member with children in the public schools, expressed guarded support for vouchers, conflicted over taking away from an already distressed district but seeing it as possibly the last fair remedy amid continued budget cuts and embarrassing dropout rates.
“Parents feel they have no recourse,” he said. “At least with this, the money would follow the child.”
This year, a common thread has been fury over a school budget whittled down to a zero increase, the most severe cuts in the state to a district with six failing schools.
“We can’t even get the small things for our kids,” Lisa Brown, a mother of a 12-year-old public school student, said, citing broken lockers and textbook shortages. “I would be an opponent (of the vouchers) except that the township doesn’t really care about our kids. It’s the other kids that get the majority of help.”
Brown’s comment reflects a long-standing, popular and sometimes misguided fear among those involved in Lakewood’s public education that their schools are fading into oblivion as the private sector grows. And vouchers would only hurry it along, they contend.
Local teachers’ union president Carol Cousins, who opposes the bill, acknowledged her worry for her town’s precarious makeup.
“We were always different,” the 40-year resident and educator said. “By its nature, Lakewood is different. A lot of people just don’t understand that.”