It took 10 years for New Jersey to accumulate a dozen school districts that had opened up their doors to students from other communities, a slow pace that was the consequence of crowded classrooms and state restrictions.
That is changing, and in an age of declining enrollments and fewer restrictions, public school choice is catching on.
By last month’s deadline, more than 70 districts -- from Frenchtown to South Hunterdon to Robbinsville -- had applied to the state to join the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, according to officials.
The biggest interest remains in southern parts of the state, with 11 applications in Camden County alone. Eight were filed from Hunterdon, five from Sussex. None came out of Essex, Middlesex or Hudson.
One reason for the surge is a new law that extends the 1999 school choice pilot program, which permitted only one district per county to open up to students from other districts, free of charge. The new measure, adopted this fall, enables any district in the state to participate in the open enrollment program, as long as its application is approved.
New Jersey is hardly alone in warming up to school choice. A vast majority of states have some form of open enrollment policy, with more than 20 of making it mandatory.
But the new program is just one reason for the newfound popularity of school choice. Other factors include the recession and state budget crunch that has left districts desperate for revenues. Further, enrollments statewide have peaked and are now dropping, opening up classroom seats.
Marlboro schools, for instance, have lost about 400 students in the past three years. With a cut in state aid and a new cap on property taxes, officials said other revenues will be critical to help pay for teacher contracts and other fixed costs.
“It’s an another opportunity for revenue enhancement,” said David Abbott, superintendent of Marlboro schools. "And it’s all part of where the nation is going. I look at places like Minnesota where it’s been around a while, I think it’s worked quite well.”
Marlboro envisions opening up about 20 seats, mostly in the lower grades, to a half-dozen districts within the 20-mile radius prescribed under the law. If it fills them all, at about $11,000, a student, that’s a small windfall for Marlboro, Abbott said.
"That’s $250,000 in a new revenue stream," Abbott said. "That could save jobs, maybe reduce class sizes."
The state is now reviewing applications to the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, with approvals expected by January. In their applications districts must explain how they will provide guidance to parents, the programs they will offer to other districts, and the impact the program could have on enrollments and student diversity, along with other issues.
The impact of open enrollment on the racial makeup of both the sending and the receiving districts has been a big issue in New Jersey and elsewhere. State officials said that would be one of many criteria under review.
"We knew this would be popular, but I underestimated how popular it would be," said Valarie Smith, who heads the program for the state Department of Education. "The number of calls we received was stupendous, from Abbott districts up to places like Alpine."
Gregg Edwards, a policy advisor to Gov. Chris Christie, said today that the growth of inter-district choice could also prove an impetus for more consolidation and sharing among districts.
"This is a way of achieving consolidation that we talk about in what I call a velvet hand approach," he said at a forum hosted by the Garden State Coalition of Schools. "I think it could revolutionize the whole approach in how we make schools more efficient."