It wasn't a turnout on the scale of a mandate, but the organizer of an event in Morristown endorsing National School Choice Week said it's only the beginning.
TEA for Education, held Sunday at , was just one of hundreds of events being held nationwide in support of School Choice, a voucher program that would allow parents to send their children to schools outside their district.
Speakers and attendees included members of various grassroots organizations, including several Tea Party organizations around the state, as well as former Jersey City mayor and former gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler. Also in attendance were Sen. Anthony Bucco Sr. and Assemblymen Anthony Bucco Jr. and Michael Patrick Carroll (all Republicans representing the 25th District), who are the prime supporters of "The New Jersey Parental Rights Program Act," a law that would award students who qualify a scholarship equal to the lesser of either the participating school’s annual tuition, or the amount the home school district would have received for that student from federal, state and local funding sources.
Organizer Israel Teitelbaum, of Alliance for Free Choice in Education, said the goal of the event was "to encourage activists to carry this message and overcome the big lie–supported by billions of taxpayer dollars, funneled through unions–claiming that school choice will lead to greater costs and decreased quality."
Teitelbaum, of Morris Township, said he first got interested in school choice in the 1990s. "My interest began with anger at the discriminatory treatment suffered by those of us who choose to send our children to nonpublic schools," he said. "Bret Schundler’s talk at a nearby school in the mid-90’s spurred me to action. But my interest and drive increased considerably as I learned that most of our social and political problems are rooted in this nondemocratic system. By controlling the education of our nation’s children and the countless billions that flow through this system, those who are meant to be public servants have become public masters. By taking our children, they have taken us all."
While the event primarily served as a rally for those in favor of the "School Choice" legislation, one attendee came out in opposition.
Morris Township resident and former teacher Harriet Knevals said, "large groups of parents making school choices will result in chaos.
"Schools won't be able to plan for the following year because they won't know what children will be enrolled or know what monies will be available," said Knevals, a teacher for 40 years in the Newark public school system. "Parents often 'jump on the bandwagon' when they decide what school they choose ... Schools are often founded for quasi-religious reasons, such as Hebrew or cultural such as Chinese so the parents don't have to pay for language lessons. There is an elitist mentality that private and religious schools are inherently better, which is so wrong.
"This whole movement never addresses the children left behind, the ones that don't go to a charter or use a voucher," Knevals added.
Speakers, though, had a different take on the subject.
One of those speakers, James Bridge, a German teacher and member of the conservative "Hear Us Now USA" organization, told the audience of about 50 people that "young people must be taught. Young people's decision making centers are not fully formed.
We need to tell them what they need to know," he said.
Richard Nodine, of New Jersey Conservative Party USA, said "we find ourselves in the crossroads of history.
We must set a course to come out of this moral bankruptcy," he told the audience. "We must focus the cause on our children's future."
Sen. Bucco called Teitelbaum "the driving force behind this bill.
"This is the way we should be going in this state," he said. The senator noted, however, "we can present bills, but if the majority party does not want to move these bills, they do not get moved."
Carroll, touted in his bio at the event as "New Jersey's Most Conservative Legislator," said the teacher's union has become "the single biggest impediment to education.
"Teachers do (care about children), their unions do not. Unions care only about political power," Carroll said, a comment that prompted Knevals to wave her arms and say "that's not true."
During a Q&A portion at the event, Knevals said, "the unions don't control the teachers. Their hands are tied.
"We became scripted and told if you don't teach it this way, you'll be written up," she said. "Teachers today are not the same as they were years ago."
Speaking about the Morris School District, Knevals said, "It does believe in old-fashioned education. They get it," she said. "But, you're going to disrupt the classrooms. Where are they going? I've watched some of my really good students go to charter schools. Then, what happens to that school?"
This prompted one woman behind her to shout, "so what?! They get better, because competition is great."
While there were more empty seats in the auditorium than attendees, Teitelbaum said, "One activist can accomplish more than 10,000 who sit home all day and watch TV. The movement is picking up steam as never before.
"School choice will become a reality as soon as enough people realize that parental choice will vastly improve the quality and efficiency of education by making the system accountable to parents," he said. "Every product and service provider, in order to function well and efficiently must be accountable to those benefiting from the product or service. Today, the educational establishment is accountable to no one."