Coming to a District Near You: That Other Choice Program

Inter-district School Choice Act has quietly redrawn school borders and may soon be an option for any district in NJ

A little more than a decade ago, another school choice program was drawing its own share of cries that it would either save or kill public schools as we knew them.

It, too, originated with a Republican governor and an outspoken education commissioner wanting to shake up the education establishment, and the teachers unions were among the early critics wary of it.

But unlike the proposal for private school vouchers now sparking heat in the Statehouse, New Jersey’s Inter-district School Choice program draws barely a comment at legislative hearings anymore — all while it has quietly grown and redrawn traditional school borders in dozens of districts.

And also unlike its voucher cousin, the Inter-district program now appears certain for adoption into permanent law within the week, potentially making it an option for any district in New Jersey.

“It’s nice to see this finally come to fruition,” said Rochelle Hendricks, an assistant education commissioner. “We’ve been poised for this for a long time.”

No Easy Sell at the Time

Of course, the key distinction is that the Inter-district Choice program applies only to public schools, allowing students to get their education in selected nearby districts free of charge.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act that’s now the subject of back-room negotiations and front-room press conferences would provide scholarship vouchers for students in low-performing schools to attend any school of their choice, public or private.

But the Inter-district program was no easy sell in the late 1990s, either, when then-Gov. Christie Whitman and her education commissioner, Leo Klagholz, first advanced the idea of breaking down public school boundaries.

They wanted to go further and include private school vouchers as well, but after much debate, the Inter-district School Choice Act of 1999 was what emerged.

The way the program now works, a limit of one district per county and no more than 16 overall are eligible to open their doors to outside students, filling its seats and drawing the commensurate state aid that last year exceeded $8.9 million statewide.

Caps on Expansion

But with the limits, the program never much grew beyond its first few years. It was slated as a five-year pilot and only survived beyond 2005 through various appropriations bills.

Last year, 919 children were enrolled in the 16 districts, coming from scores of surrounding communities. The biggest draw has been Englewood schools, which drew 275 outside students and have used the program to help diversify a school system under a state desegregation order. Folsom’s one elementary school last year drew 163 outside students, more than a third of its total enrollment.

On the other end, fewer than 10 outside students have been drawn to any of the choice schools in Stafford, Hoboken, Belvidere, Salem City and Washington Township in Burlington County.

“In most instances, the program has worked and worked well,” Hendricks said. “In others, there have been some challenges that have clearly slowed it down.”

A host of factors contribute to those lower numbers, educators and experts have said, ranging from the quality of the schools to trickier issues of race and class. But some can be found in the old law itself, including caps that allow sending districts to limit the number of students who can leave.

New Bill Removes Limits, Has Teacher Support

Those limits have been removed from the bill now nearing a final vote in the Senate, after its unanimous recommendation from the Senate’s budget committee yesterday. The new bill would also remove the one-per-county limit, potentially opening it to any district with available seats.

That has been the quandary for many districts, especially in northern New Jersey, where vacancies are few.

But Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), prime sponsor of the new measure, said she hopes urban districts with declining enrollments would see the opportunity — and the potential funding — to expand magnet programs.

“It’s a program that only appeals to a small group of districts,” she said yesterday. “It’s totally voluntary and has to work for the circumstances of its students. But I encourage any programs that open up choices within public schools. I think the competition is a good thing.”

She said it is a far more preferable form of school choice than the voucher bill, which she said she opposes.

“More importantly, public school choice programs can improve educational outcomes for students without seeing taxpayer money funneled out of New Jersey’s strong public school system,” she said.

Even the New Jersey’s Education Association’s lead lobbyist, Ginger Gold Schnitzer, said the teachers union is in full support this time around.

“It’s not like vouchers, which is public money for private schools,” she said. “Inter-district choice doesn’t do that, and has actually shown to help schools in places like Folsom. Our experience with it has been mostly positive.”