New Jersey's modest start in opening up public school boundaries a decade ago is about to see a major expansion, with the state yesterday adding 56 more districts that can accept students outside their borders.
The inter-district choice program that began mostly to ease enrollment declines in South Jersey will be making big inroads – and some innovative turns -- into the north, in suburban enclaves in Morris, Somerset and especially Hunterdon Counties.
Overall, next year will see 71 participating districts able to accept nearly 3,000 students not their own.
Different from charter schools or private vouchers, the program beginning under former Gov. Christine Whitman blurred school boundaries and let students travel outside their districts for public education.
With pretty tight limits set by the state and the legislature, a dozen districts signed up to accept outside students, most in South Jersey, and a few hundred students took the leap.
The expansion comes after the legislature last year significantly loosened the limits from a previous cap of one choice district per county, and then Gov. Chris Christie more than doubled the pot of state aid for such districts by adding another $12 million for next year.
But they are changing in purpose, too, not just filling empty seats but also bolstering specialized programs that help local districts compete with the likes of the charter schools and the county magnets.
In Morris County, according to state officials, Morris Knolls High School will offer seats to its rigorous International Baccalaureate program, and its sister Morris Hills will use the program to help fill out a new math and science academy.
In Springfield’s Dayton High School, it will help fill out Advanced Placement offerings in the school. At Glassboro High School, it’s a performing arts academy, and in Northern Burlington Regional, the agricultural program.
"People wanted to use it for areas of specialization, with charters and county schools growing more and more specialized," said Valarie Smith, director of the state’s inter-district choice office. "A light went on of more competition, where they saw they could now build their own."
It also didn’t hurt in these economic times that there is money attached, with the state paying typically about $10,000 per student, plus plans to include additional state aid in the future.
For some districts, it’s new state money for outside students –- oftentimes the children of teachers -- already attending their schools but forced to pay a tuition. Now, the state will pay.
Morris Schools are opening up their schools for students to attend the Normandy Park School. The school board’s president toldthat it was as much an economic decision, with many students already paying.
"When every penny counts, you have to figure out ways to increase revenue,” said Lisa Pollack, the board president said.
Deal schools was another such case, state officials said, with 76 outside students already paying tuition, but now with the state program picking up the cost, it will mean even more money to the district.
Of course, all of this will depend on how many students end up choosing to attend these districts. After a tepid start in some districts in the late 1990s, the enrollments have grown in many of the existing programs.
Among the most notable is Folsom’s one-school district in Atlantic County, where the choice program practically saved the school from extinction, and its 157 outside students are now almost half the enrollment. Another 30 seats are available for next year.
(In the first such arrangement, Folsom’s receiving high school in Hammonton was among those approved yesterday, now providing a full K-12 path for these students.)
Elsewhere, Englewood City has used the program to address a decades-old desegregation order and created a specialized magnet at Dwight Morrow High School, enrolling more than 200 outside students and helping diversify a school that had been predominantly minority students.
For the next school year, the application process for students to attend any of these schools has been expedited, and they will have two weeks to apply. Details of how to do so are on the local and state websites.
Still, a prime sponsor of the new legislation that helped open up the program statewide said yesterday that the interest and all the different uses being envisioned are more than she would have dreamed when she started pressing for the new law two years ago.
"This is really the intent of the program all along," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). "It creates an efficiency and allows for this kind of creativity. I’m very excited about this.