By Cid Wilson
It is disappointing to see Gov. Chris Christie backtrack on his support for the New Jersey DREAM Act after campaigning to say that he supports tuition equality for all in the final weeks before his re-election.
But his reasons for opposing the New Jersey DREAM Act were such lame excuses, I felt compelled to challenge Christie’s excuses one-by-one.
First, Gov. Chris Christie has a wildly incorrect claim that The New Jersey DREAM Act legislation would be a magnet for out-of-state undocumented students who would aspire to enroll in private high schools in New Jersey while maintaining their out-of-state residency, believing that those students will get in-state college tuition after they graduate from those N.J. private schools.
I challenge the logic behind that excuse and I challenge Governor Christie to find me just one single undocumented high school student who lives in New York, Pennsylvania, or Delaware who would attend a private school in New Jersey with the primary goal of attending a New Jersey public college after completing private high school, so that they can get in-state college tuition in New Jersey. I dare Governor Christie to find me just one!
In Bergen County where I have lived my whole life, we have two private N.J. high schools that are close to the border with New York State: St. Joseph’s Regional High School and Don Bosco Prep High School.
Tuition at St. Joseph’s is $11,900 per year plus fees, and at Don Bosco, it’s $14,850 per year. That is more expensive than tuition at most public colleges in New Jersey.
If Governor Christie thinks that a New York undocumented family is going to send their child to those private schools in New Jersey, afford the money to pay the huge private school tuition rates, with the primary goal of sending that student to a public university in New Jersey to get the in-state tuition rate, the Governor should dust off his Economics 101 books and refresh his skills, because his analysis would have earned him a failing grade in Econ 101.
Secondly, when Governor Christie stated that the NJ DREAM Act is “richer” than the federal DREAM Act, that too was grossly inaccurate. The NJ DREAM Act, which passed in the N.J. Senate, would provide in-state tuition and state financial aid for those that qualify. Not all students will qualify for financial aid.
The federal DREAM Act, if passed by Congress, would clear the way for in-state tuition, financial aid and student loans for those that qualify, a path to becoming a U.S. citizen, and upon becoming a U.S. citizen, the right to vote. So Governor Christie is wrong in believing that the NJ DREAM Act provides more benefits than the federal DREAM Act legislation.
Thirdly, Governor Christie is totally wrong to oppose the financial aid portion of the NJ DREAM Act. The fact is that many New Jersey DREAMers graduate from New Jersey high schools ranked in the top 15% of their classes, some graduate as valedictorians. Were it not for their immigration status, those students would automatically qualify for the New Jersey STARS Program which grants scholarships to students to attend community colleges if they finish in the top 15% of their class rank.
The way it currently works, when an academically-eligible DREAMer gets passed over for a merit-based state scholarship like NJ STARS, that scholarship does not automatically go to the next eligible N.J. high school student.
Instead, the NJ STARS scholarship money simply goes unspent and sent back to the N.J. Treasury. In other words, if you have a student at a N.J. high school who is ranked in the 16%-age range of their graduating class (meaning they missed the 15% minimum class rank threshold for NJ STARS scholarships) and the New Jersey DREAMer is ranked within the 15%-age range in the same class but cannot get the scholarship because of their immigration status, the New Jersey STARS scholarship does not automatically go to the 16%-age ranked student if the 15%-age ranked students are DREAMers.
So the notion that DREAMers are taking scholarships such as the NJ STARS away from other students is totally inaccurate. High schools do not exclude undocumented students when calculating the class ranks for graduating seniors. Class rank, in addition to academic performance and college placement tests, are the deciding factors for merit-based scholarships.
Lastly, Governor Christie wants the NJ DREAM Act bill to sunset act expire and he cited President Obama’s executive order for Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as an example. That has me and everyone scratching our heads. Doesn’t Governor Christie know that an executive order by the President of the United States sunsets by definition?
All Executive Orders by any President sunset when they leave office unless the next President renews them. If the U.S. House of Representatives passes the U.S. Senate immigration bill, there will be no sunset clause in the federal legislation. It would be the permanent law of the land if passed in Congress.
So for Governor Christie to demand a sunset clause from the N.J. Legislature for the NJ DREAM Act is completely ridiculous. The N.J. Legislature should hold firm that the New Jersey DREAM Act should have no sunset clause.
If Governor Christie is serious about debating his talking points on the reasons for his opposition to the New Jersey DREAM Act, I’m happy to meet with him, crunch the financial numbers in front of him, and show him real-life examples that prove that Christie’s arguments against the New Jersey DREAM Act are so weak, they could be rebutted by a 5th grader.
The New Jersey DREAM Act bill which passed the State Senate would benefit the state economy as well as the DREAMers who want to give back and make a positive difference in our Garden State. These DREAMers will become future members of the workforce and many of them will become future job creators when they start new businesses in the state.
That means more tax revenue for the state to help close the annual structural fiscal deficit that the state faces every year. In other words, the state is going to get a positive financial return on its education investment by making the NJ DREAM Act the law of New Jersey.
It is smart Econ 101 policy. By helping the NJ DREAMers get a college degree, we are helping them qualify for better-paying jobs and create new businesses that will multiply into more New Jersey jobs, all of which equate to more tax revenue for the state, which ultimately benefits all New Jersey residents.
I reiterate my call for Gov. Chris Christie to sign the N.J. DREAM Act into law when it reaches his desk.
The opinion in this op-ed is solely my opinion and not the official opinion of the institutions where I serve on their board.
Cid Wilson is a national Latino leader, a statewide NJ civic activist, and a lifelong resident of Bergen County, NJ. He serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Bergen Community College and as State Trustee Ambassador to the New Jersey Council of County Colleges,