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The Associated Press March 23, 2011, 4:57PM ET

School choice advocates rally at NJ budget hearing

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces the possibility of being ordered by the state Supreme Court to restore hundreds of millions in cuts to public schools, students told an Assembly Budget panel Wednesday that taxpayers should help pay private-school tuition because it is impossible to get a decent education in their failing districts.

Dozens of students rallied at Camden County Community College's Blackwood Campus before a hearing on the proposed state budget to encourage lawmakers to pass an experimental school choice bill, and two later testified. Christie, who was on campus Wednesday afternoon for a meeting on regional policing, said he continues to support the school choice bill, which is part of his overall education reform plan. The governor also said he is confident the Supreme Court will view his education cuts favorably in light of the state's poor fiscal condition.

The school choice measure, under consideration in both the Assembly and Senate, would allow students in some underperforming districts to attend private or parochial school or to go to public school in another district on scholarship. The bill, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give tax credits to businesses that help fund the scholarships, thereby reducing corporate tax revenue the state takes in.

Proponents want to help at least some students escape failing schools. Advocate Angel Cordero, who runs an alternative school in Camden, said outside the hearing that students in failing schools are being sentenced to a life of poverty.

Opponents say the state should not divert money from public schools to fund private or parochial education.

Rachel Barton, 13, said she has thrived since transferring from a public middle school to St. Anthony of Padua school. But she said her four-year scholarship to Camden Catholic High School is bittersweet because she's the only student in her class to get her tuition fully paid. She told lawmakers she wants to see other students get the same opportunity.

Glenda Rodriguez, 16, said she "got a second chance" at an alternative school in Camden after being expelled from Woodrow Wilson High School after defending herself after being attacked in the school. She said violence was so commonplace at the city school that it prevented her from getting an education.

The school choice program is being introduced as a five-year pilot. The current version of the bill allows participation of students in 13 failing districts, chooses recipients by lottery and allows nearly a quarter of the scholarships to go to students already in private or parochial schools.

The Assembly bill would cost an estimated $360 million over five years. The cost estimate on the Senate version is higher.

Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee, said he supports school choice, but wants to see the bill scaled back. He said he'd confine the pilot program to five chronically failing districts and would not involve students already attending non-public schools.

On Tuesday, a Superior Court judge concluded that Christie's school aid cuts made the state unable to meet its obligation to provide all students with a "thorough and efficient" education. He found urban districts hardest hit by the cuts. It is now up to the Supreme Court to consider what, if anything, to do about it. Responses by the parties are due April 14.

A ruling could complicate the budget process, especially if the court orders money put back into public education for the year ahead. A balanced budget must be in place by June 30. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

Christie said he is confident his lawyers will prevail in the Supreme Court. He also called the school funding system "crazy," saying that it makes no sense to spend more and more money in failing school districts when student achievement is not improving.

His fixes include eliminating teacher tenure; instituting merit pay based, in part, student performance; adding charter schools; and allowing school choice.

The state teachers union opposes most of Christie's proposals.

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