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Opinion: NJ School Choice -- Protect the Students, Not the System

Surely, the state's school system is robust enough to serve all of its students -- rich and poor.

Want to get the public education establishment in New Jersey agitated? Mention "school choice" and stand back. "An assault on New Jersey's public schools," is how one anti-choice group calls it. You know the drill: offering options to families "creams off" the top kids, drains money from district coffers, and, according to New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Barbara Keshishian, threatens to "upend the whole system, hurting students in the process."

Just this past Friday, Dr. Diane Ravitch, renowned education historian and fierce advocate for teachers' unions, said on the Blue Jersey website "[t]he most closely held secret in New Jersey is that the state's public schools are among the best in the nation... So along comes Gov. Christie with proposals to open more charter schools... Gov. Christie should take care to do no harm."

In fact, we already have school choice in New Jersey, Ravitich's dire warnings to the contrary.

Let's peruse NJ's school choice menu, which includes magnet schools, the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP), charter schools, and, potentially, the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA):

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are county-run public schools. For example, Bergen County high school students can attend Bergen County Academies -- if they can make it through admissions. Math and language arts tests are required, as well as an interview, and the acceptance rate is about 15 percent. No lotteries here! Bergen districts pay tuition and transportation. The total cost per pupil was $26,788 in 2010, according to most recent DOE records, higher than any Abbott district.

IPSCP

Another option, recently plumped up by passage of a legislative expansion, is the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP), which allows kids to cross district boundaries to attend 70 schools with empty seats.

For example, South Hunterdon Regional High School, a combined middle and high school, was struggling with an enrollment of only 336 kids. Cost per pupil, due to inefficiencies inherent in small size, was $24,825. Now it's a "choice" school, and 35 kids attend from other districts. Those home districts pay annual tuitions of $13,100, plus transportation. Not a peep from anti-choice advocates, nor from NJEA.

Charter Schools

These autonomous public schools are independent of locally run districts, and most of Jersey's are in impoverished cities. Students take the same standardized tests as kids in traditional districts. Admission, unlike magnet schools, is done through a lottery. Quality varies. There can be thousands of prospective students on waiting lists for the best.

New Jersey's charter school movement got sidetracked this year by the growth of "boutique" charters. These serve wealthy kids and offer programs like Mandarin or Hebrew immersion. Happily, Gov. Christie signaled a course correction last week when he told the School Boards Association's Ray Pinney that charter schools "should be focused [in areas where] traditional schools are a failure."

The Opportunity Scholarship Act

This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ray Lesniak and Republican Senator Tom Kean, has yet to pass through the legislature. It would establish scholarships to private and parochial schools funded by corporations that, in return, would receive tax credits. The bottom line is revenue-neutral. Schools with OSA students would be required to administer the usual standardized tests. The pilot would involve up to 13 failing districts (Camden, Newark, Paterson, Trenton, and so on) and up to 30,000 kids. Participating schools must accept as full payment the amount of the scholarship. Home districts pay nothing.

Now, reasonable people can make reasonable objections to blurring the distinction between parochial schools and non-denominational schools. But it's far easier to raise those objections if you don't have children trapped in persistently failing schools.

There are three reasons why magnet schools and IPSCP pass unscathed through the anti-choice gauntlet, yet charters and OSA get hammered.

First, magnets and IPSCP serve small numbers of students. They're minor tweaks, not meaningful reforms (although the latter has the potential to serve many more kids).

Second, we've created a false dichotomy between protecting the "system" and protecting poor students. Ironically, the anti-choice constituency seems to perceive New Jersey's public education establishment -- funded at a cool $25 billion per year -- as fragile enough to buckle under the burden of offering options to the 100,000 poor kids who attend dismal schools. The pro-choice constituency knows that our school system is strong and stable.

Finally, magnet schools and IPSCP are staffed unionized employees. Most charter school teachers and parochial school teachers are not unionized, so charter school expansion and the OSA. are budgetary threats to the NJEA's bottom line.

Diane Ravitch and Barbara Keshishian are right: We do have some of the best schools in the nation. Until all our kids get to attend them, however, we need the options offered through school choice -- magnet schools, IPSCP, charter schools, and OSA.

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