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LESSONS FROM GEORGIA AND WISCONSIN: NJ VOUCHER BILL WILL LEAD TO WASTE, ABUSE AND SEGREGATION

Smart leaders learn from successes and failures in other states. By using the experience of others, states don't have to reinvent the wheel or suffer the consequences of implementing programs that have proved to be ineffective, or even harmful, elsewhere.

With this in mind, New Jersey lawmakers should pay close attention to the experiences of Georgia and Wisconsin. Both states have enacted voucher schemes that have made news lately as researchers document the waste, abuse and student segregation caused by these programs.

A recent report by the Southern Education Foundation entitled Failed Experiment: Georgia's Tax Credit Scholarships for Private Schools paints an alarming picture of a program that has failed to live up to its billing, while creating or exacerbating problems for public education in the state.

Georgia's law, which is similar to legislation that has been proposed in NJ, provides tax credits to corporations and individuals (the NJ proposal limits the program to corporations) that donate money to be used for vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools.

According to the report, the Georgia voucher law "lacks public accountability and allows widespread abuses." Vouchers have been awarded to students who did not attend public school previously, as the law requires. Evidence also shows that the law has not resulted in more low-income students in private schools.

The Southern Education Foundation report also finds that the voucher law has cost Georgia taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year. Those dollars have been used to support private schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity.

Segregation of students with disabilities has been one of the results of Milwaukee's voucher program, the nation's oldest. Advocates there recently filed a complaint with the Department of Justice stating that the voucher system discriminates against children with disabilities, since a very small percentage of these students are served by private voucher schools.

Here in NJ, proposed voucher legislation, dubbed the "Opportunity Scholarship Act," would divert an estimated $860 million in state funds to private and religious schools in a small group of districts. While proponents try to sell the legislation as a "pilot" program, we know that vouchers are a waste of scarce taxpayer dollars -- funding that our public schools desperately need. We can thank Milwaukee, Georgia and other states for teaching us this invaluable lesson.

Polls clearly show that a majority of NJ residents oppose vouchers and do not want to spend public money on unaccountable private and religious schools. This is why the proposed voucher bill remains stalled in the Legislature.

Most NJ legislators aren't fooled by the hype. They know vouchers mean the loss of taxpayer dollars, legal challenges, the inevitable waste and abuse, and failure to make any difference in improving education for New Jersey's 1.3 million public school students. Just ask their colleagues in Georgia and Wisconsin. They know that vouchers are a bad deal all around.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy & Outreach Coordinator
email: skrengel@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x24