Article Published in Passaic (NJ) Herald-News
PATERSON – A recent study by a conservative think tank has come out in favor of school vouchers for the city’s public school students.
The Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., released a report last week recommending that a voucher program be implemented in Paterson to allow parents to pull their children out of deficient schools and send them to parochial or private ones.
The debate about school vouchers has raged in other American cities as the belief that universal public education is the bedrock of democracy clashed with the reality of struggling school systems in poor and failing cities.
The Newark-based group Excellent Education for Everyone, or E3, lobbies for the districts under state control, including Jersey City, to be allowed to institute voucher programs. As it stands, Derrell Bradford, the group’s deputy director, said those schools are producing a permanent minority underclass.
“It is way too much to wait for the state Department of Education’s magic five-year reform to maybe work,” Bradford said. “For all its good intentions, you get a 15-year failure. How many kids did we lose during that time?”
Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute and one of the study’s authors, grew up in Glen Rock and has followed the saga of the Paterson public school system’s struggle since the state took control in 1991. He said the $12,607 Paterson spent on each student during the 2002-03 school year could have been better spent.
E3 executives said the state Legislature should empower districts such as Paterson to enact three reforms: institute open enrollment in the public schools, expand the number of charter schools and give vouchers for private schools. Under the E3 model, low-income parents would be allowed to choose where to send their children among those three options.
School-choice advocates such as Bradford and Soifer argue that the competition created by giving parents vouchers would force the public schools to finally take the necessary steps to correct their problems.
“It burns the district, but, at the same time, it’s supposed to hurt,” Bradford said. “You have, unfortunately, lost the confidence of this parent, failed to do your job with this child, and you lost them. If you want them back, you know what you’ve got to do.”
At the Paterson Education Fund, director Irene Sterling questioned where the children with vouchers would go. There are 22 private schools in Paterson, according to federal Department of Education statistics.
Sterling said the schools, which have seen several closings in recent years, don’t have room for all the public school students who will want to enter them.
She said that only in the past few years, with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have Paterson schools been working to educate all students.
“This district did what it was supposed to do under the previous assumptions, which was prepare half of the kids for graduation,” Sterling said. “The other half went to work in factories which don’t exist anymore. It’s going to take time to recalibrate.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson operates eight schools in the city from elementary through high school. Diocesan spokeswoman Marianna Thompson said the Catholic schools would be happy to accept students from public schools, although she couldn’t speculate on whether the diocese would build more schools if a voucher system were introduced.
Jacqueline Jones, spokeswoman for the Paterson public schools, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Sandra Bosque, whose son is a seventh-grader at School 27, said she likes the idea of giving parents a choice of where to send their children, but that the generally smaller private schools don’t have the facilities or technology of the public schools.
“I wish there were more options out there, but there aren’t,” said Bosque, president of the PTA at School 27. “You can give all the vouchers you want, where are you going to go?”
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