Don’t Gamble With Voucher Schemes In Atlantic City

I was excited to be relaxing last week in Ocean City, N.J., my hometown. But one morning when I opened the local paper, the Press of Atlantic City, I was disappointed to find out that work had followed me on vacation: The city council in nearby Atlantic City had just voted to put a referendum on the November ballot asking whether the city should adopt private school vouchers and give a tax credit to parents who homeschool.

Atlantic City is having serious budget issues and is trying to stave off a takeover by the state. Those of us who love the community hope the council will succeed in finding solutions. Yet, we can’t help but worry they won’t meet the challenge if they think, as the sponsors of the referendum claim, that vouchers and the tax credit would save the city money and help their budget situation. 

Vouchers, of course, are more likely to exacerbate the city’s problems than solve them.

Atlantic City needs real solutions to its problems, not vouchers.

In Indiana, for example, the state recently announced that its voucher program resulted in a deficit of $53 million. In Milwaukee, which has been disproportionately burdened in a statewide voucher funding scheme, the city has had to raise property taxes several times in order to ensure adequate funding for the city’s schools.

While costing more money, vouchers also deprive students of rights guaranteed to public school students, don’t improve academic achievement, lack accountability to taxpayers, threaten religious freedom and fund discrimination. Atlantic City would be betting on a sure loser.

And vouchers probably aren’t even legal. First, the New Jersey Constitution prohibits using taxpayer dollars to support religion. Yet, there are only two private schools in Atlantic City – and both of them are religious.

Also, much to the dismay of Gov. Chris Christie, New Jersey doesn’t have a law approving the use of vouchers at the state or local level. So, it’s unclear what authority the council thinks it has for siphoning taxpayer dollars from the Atlantic City public school system.

So even though I was on vacation, I wanted to make sure the council knew all the problems with vouchers. We sent a detailed letter to council members last Thursday and urged them to remove the questions from the ballot.

We are not alone in thinking the proposals are a terrible idea. The Press of Atlantic City editorial board has called the voucher proposal “nonsense” and the homeschool tax credit “absurd for a bankrupt city.” And the Atlantic City Education Association has criticized the council for even “contemplat[ing] stripping even more funds from Atlantic City’s public school students.”

Tonight, the council meets again and could vote to take the questions off the ballot. Let’s hope the council makes the right decision, gets serious about really solving the budget crisis and keeps public funds in public schools.