Menendez ought to get behind school choice

Menendez ought to get behind school choice
September 21, 2006 Courier Post

Where we stand: Kids in failing schools deserve a decent education. Lawmakers such as Sen. Robert Menendez should help parents in poor communities by working to create school vouchers.

It ought to be a wake up call to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-Hoboken, that a prominent Latino activist in South Jersey says he won't go to the polls to vote for Menendez and the head of a statewide Latino organization also says it's too early to throw his support behind the senator.

A main reason for this lack of support is that Menendez has said flatly he opposes school choice plans that would let parents whose kids are trapped in miserable, unsafe and failing schools send them to better schools where they might have a chance.

Menendez, and many other politicians, particularly Democrats, are dead wrong on this issue. It's not right to trap kids in failing public schools just because the government is supposed to provide a quality education.

There's a big difference between supposed to do something and actually doing it.

If Menendez wants to garner strong support from the Latino community on Election Day, along with other voters in urban areas, he ought to rethink his party-line opposition to school vouchers. He must realize that, while public school districts should be the place where kids get a quality education, this isn't happening in every district in the state.

While politicians in Trenton and Washington twiddle their thumbs, look for small specks of progress over many years and hope things will improve, kids in Camden, Newark and other cities are lost. Their chance at a quality education and a better life is flushed down the toilet the longer they remain trapped in failing schools.

Kids can't learn when their school is a nightmare, when there are drugs everywhere, there's violence in the halls, out of control behavior in the classrooms and a general attitude of hopelessness. No New Jersey child deserves a school like that. And state taxpayers, who provide most of the money for the poorest districts in the state, don't deserve to have their money wasted sending kids to such schools, at some of the highest per-pupil costs in the nation, no less.

Support lacking

Tuesday, Angel Cordero, head of the Camden County chapter of the Latino Leadership Alliance and of the pro-school-choice organization Excellent Education for Everyone, said if he had to vote today in the U.S. Senate race between Menendez and state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., R-Westfield, he simply wouldn't vote. Cordero cited Menendez's opposition to vouchers that would let low-income parents, such as those in Camden, take the per-pupil tax dollars used to educate their kids and send them to other public schools or private, religious or charter schools for a better education. Kean considers vouchers a viable option on a pilot basis in failing school districts.

Martin Perez, head of the state Latino Leadership Alliance, which represents about 300,000 Hispanics in New Jersey, wouldn't commit to supporting Menendez in his bid to become New Jersey's first elected Latino senator and one of the few Latino senators in Washington.

Writing on the wall

That these key Latino leaders are witholding support ought to sound alarm bells for Menendez.

He and other politicians need to see the writing on the wall. They need to realize that Hispanic kids, African-American kids and those of other races and religions, are not getting the "thorough and efficient education" in Camden, Trenton and other cities that the New Jersey Constitution says they must be provided. That's why the Latino Leadership Alliance, Excellent Education for Everyone and the Black Ministers Council are suing the state to force the creation of a voucher program.

In too many poor, urban districts across the state, kids are dropping out of or graduating from terrible schools completely unprepared for the modern job market or for higher education.

These kids shouldn't be doomed to this fate just because they're poor.

Menendez ought to realize that. This is a problem that touches many Latino families, along with black families, white families and others.

Menendez ought to support a pilot program that would give parents who live in the state's worst-performing districts the chance to use the tax dollars spent on their children to ensure they actually get a decent education.

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