Democratic legislative leaders did score at least one small victory in their budget "negotiations" with Gov. Chris Christie. The $32.9 billion budget, which lawmakers approved Monday, did not include Christie's pilot school-voucher program.
The program was unwise and probably illegal. And it's not clear how hard Christie fought to save it, if he fought at all. But hey, a win's a win.
The small pilot program was a somewhat diluted version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which Christie has been unable to push through the Legislature. The $2 million program that Christie inserted into the budget would have given families in underperforming school districts up to $10,000 to pay for tuition in private schools, including religious schools.
We have long opposed voucher programs. We get the point: Students in schools that are failing them should have a choice of going somewhere else. But ultimately, these vouchers mean less educational opportunity for the students left behind.
Every student who uses a voucher to go somewhere else means less enrollment-based state aid for his or her original public school. But a school's overhead costs don't really decline because it loses a few students to a voucher program. It's hard for us to see how a poor school benefits from having less money to spend on education.
Then there is the religion problem. New Jersey's Constitution is even stricter than the U.S. Constitution regarding the separation of church and state. No public funds can be used for the "maintenance of any ministry," according to the state constitution, a clause that would seem to rule out vouchers for religious schools.
Furthermore, the Education Law Center said it was illegal to insert the pilot voucher program into the state budget. "The governor is using the budget bill to create a program that he can't get through the Legislature. The budget is used to fund existing programs, not create them," David Sciarra, the head of the Education Law Center, told The Star-Ledger in May.
So either as a result of hard negotiation by Democrats, or Christie's recognition that it was a losing cause, the voucher program was dropped from the budget. (And to be fair, the Dems did have one other victory. The Christie administration agreed to drop a plan that would have increased school districts' required debt repayments for school-construction projects.)
Some are criticizing Democrats for not pushing back harder against Christie's budget proposal. But Democrats may have astutely realized that New Jersey residents are tired of the traditional last-days-of-June budget theater. The governor has the authority to veto any line items Democrats add to the spending plan - so why pretend otherwise?
And at least the school-voucher plan is dead.