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NJ Schools Press Lawmakers to Ease Restrictions on Interdistrict Choice

Supporters say enrollment cap of 5 percent stifles increasingly popular program

kids on bus

On the eve of the unveiling of the next state budget, advocates for New Jersey’s interdistrict choice program are stepping up their campaign to fight off state-imposed enrollment caps on the increasingly popular program – and winning some high-level support.

The association that represents the 130-plus districts in the program, which allows them to take in students from outside their borders, has been pressing legislators for help in easing the state edict issued last fall that limited the districts to no more than 5 percent increase in enrollment.

The state Department of Education said it was about the money, with state funding for the program ballooning in the last three years to nearly $50 million for the 5,000 students enrolled this year.

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Supporters note that some districts have come to depend on the choice program and the state money that comes with it. Some of them have set up programs – and even purchased facilities -- specifically to help attract outside students. Because of the 5 percent cap, some districts are left with available seats they’re not allowed to fill.

The message seems to have reached at least one influential legislator -- Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester). In an interview this month, when Sweeney was asked for his take on the escalating battles over charter schools in the state, he cited the interdistrict program as a model of success that the Christie administration is now stifling.

“We have a great choice program that they just put a cap on,” Sweeney said. “Kids are succeeding, families want to see kids stay in public schools, and they are furious. . . We created competition within our schools, and they put a cap on it.”

What happens next is uncertain. The interdistrict choice aid is sure to be among the more closely watched line items in the fiscal 2014 state budget to be presented by Gov. Chris Christie next week, but budget details have been a closely kept secret.

And state officials note that districts aren’t prevented from accepting other students; they just won’t receive the extra state aid they received before. As an incentive for districts to join, the state has made up-front payments of about $10,000 per student accepted through the program. State officials said the 5 percent cap was based on the expected increase in the overall interdistrict choice funding for next year.

Advocates maintain that is no help to them when they are left to pay the difference out-of-pocket, but they also indicated there may be open to compromise.

“If they were looking at ways to relieve the cap and have districts still take the kids, I’d think some would be willing to take less money for them,” said Robert Garguilo, president of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Districts Association and the interim superintendent in Folsom, one of the original choice districts almost 20 years ago.

“But we are told that (the funding amount) is statutory, and you have to take it up with the legislator,” he said.

Still, he said pulling the extra funding out from under the districts entirely is like “pulling the rug out from under them.”

“If the governor says he supports the program, how can he support it and not fund it?” Garguilo added.

The association has surveyed its members to determine the impact of the caps, and said it is widespread.

With about 30 of the 136 districts responding, virtually all said they were “negatively impacted” by the caps, with nearly half saying they would even have to turn away siblings of existing students if the caps aren’t eased. The districts have sought to have siblings excluded from the caps.

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