NJEA members worked tirelessly to defeat school vouchers six years ago when the state came perilously close to approving the idea. Now, the issue threatens New Jersey public education again with a pro-voucher administration taking hold in Washington, D.C.

In 2011, a coalition of Democratic leaders and a once-powerful Gov. Chris Christie began moving a piece of voucher legislation known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act. The proposal set up a billion-dollar scheme of corporate tax credits and other public monies to fund a private school voucher program. Thanks to sustained objections by NJEA members—including a raucous Senate hearing held outdoors to accommodate busloads of private school students and scores of NJEA and NJREA members—Senate and Assembly leaders failed to get support to move ahead.

The issue receded from the public view in New Jersey until the election of President Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Without any background in education, DeVos is singularly unqualified for the appointment. Her only credentials are the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to pro-voucher candidates for office nationally and particularly in Michigan, where her influence has led to a flood of unregulated, for-profit charter schools in Detroit.

Trump reiterated his support for vouchers in his Feb. 28 address to a joint session of Congress. Only 150 words of his 4,800 speech were devoted to education—and all of those words were a call to support vouchers. He termed education the “civil rights issue of our time,” but offered only solutions that would dismantle public schools.

H.R. 610—a symptom of the threat

For the president to get a voucher program, the most likely path is through the budget and appropriations process. That process does not require a supermajority in the U.S. Senate, where solid Democratic opposition looms.

With the threat of a filibuster, bills that need the 60-vote supermajority are unlikely to move. For example, H.R. 610, dubbed the Choices in Education Act of 2017, has received a lot of attention. H.R. 610 is a conglomeration of three broad topics: repealing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), repealing child nutrition standards and instituting a voucher program. ESSA was widely supported by Republicans in the last legislative session.

H.R. 610—with such a broad reach—would require many Democratic votes in the U.S. Senate. A sign of the bill’s lax support is its paltry list of sponsors—only three as of press time—and an unwillingness of any senator to introduce a companion version in the Senate.

While H.R. 610 may not be the vehicle to achieve vouchers, the threat is real and a nationwide voucher push is likely to appear in some form this year. For this reason, it remains critical to speak out on the threats of vouchers, tuition tax credits and other related schemes.

NJEA believes in a strong and inclusive system of public education that enables all students to succeed. Vouchers, education savings accounts, and tuition tax credits harm students, communities, and undermine public schools. There is no valid evidence that such schemes improve the performance of either the students receiving them or those left behind in public schools. Instead, vouchers and other related initiatives only rob public schools of vital funding and resources and deprive students of the rights and protections guaranteed in public schools.

While H.R. 610 may not be the vehicle to achieve vouchers, the threat is real and a nationwide voucher push is likely to appear in some form this year. For this reason, it remains critical to speak out on the threats of vouchers, tuition tax credits and other related schemes.

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