Opinion: A Sure-Fire Way to Put School Choice Into Practice

Laura Waters | September 17, 2010 | Opinion
Relying on the kindness of wealthy districts isn’t going to help students from poor districts get a better education, but cash would

It’s old news. New Jersey’s state education system, diced up into 591 separate school districts, is a recipe for disparity: Poor urban kids attend chronically failing schools and wealthier kids attend successful ones.

But in theory, public school choice exists in New Jersey. That’s because the state legislature this summer passed A355/S1073, which makes permanent a 1999 pilot program called the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. In theory, our finest schools are no longer gated communities, locking out aspiring children from poor districts next door. In theory, students can cross district boundaries to get a better education.

In practice, it’s another story.

The problem? It’s all voluntary, dependent on the benevolence of those higher performing districts and their willingness to let other students in.

While our representatives are to be commended for taking the pilot program out of suspended animation, they ignored a set of recommendations from Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the vagaries of NJ’s cultural inclinations. Thus they missed the opportunity to unlock the gates in a meaningful way.

But it’s not too late to get it right.

Let’s get right to the gist of the Rutgers report, in which the authors write:

“If interdistrict choice is to continue to rely on voluntary participation, the state should offer effective incentives for district participation. The strongest incentive, of course, is financial. School choice aid has been of substantial benefit to choice districts, and is likely to be the strongest incentive for voluntary participation. To provide maximum levels of choice and, theoretically, obtain the greatest possible benefit, the amount of state aid provided to participating districts should be limited only by demand. Alternatively, interdistrict choice could be targeted to certain districts or groups of students.”

In other words, relying on the kindness of neighboring districts to take in aspiring scholars from failing schools will get you only so far. It’s going to take more than an abstract adherence to principles of educational equity. It’s going to take cash.

But we’re broke. So let’s shift our glance from the hallowed halls of the Senate and heaven’s reward to the hurly-burly of New Jersey.

Example: Cherry Hill High School — take your pick, East or West — in Camden County. For school year 2008-2009, 97.9 percent of Cherry Hill East students graduated high school by passing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA); 3.8 percent of students failed the language arts section and 6.7 percent failed the math portion. Some 73.5 percent of Cherry Hill’s students go on to four-year colleges, and 26.9 percent take advanced placement courses. It’s got a District Factor Group of “I,” the second-highest ranking on the wealth-o-meter.

Now trundle nine miles west to Camden Central High, with a DFG of “A,” the poorest possible designation. For school year 2008-2009, 25.9 percent of students graduated high school by passing the HSPA; 80.5 percent of students failed the language arts section. Just 15 percent of Camden High’s students go on to four-year colleges, and 0 percent take advanced placement courses. Math scores on the HSPA? The State DOE suppressed the scores, apparently because they were so low, although scores for 2007-2008 are available. These show that 87.1 percent of the kids at Camden High there failed the math portion of the HSPA.

It would no doubt take much fortitude for the school board and administration of Cherry Hill to open their doors to needy students from Camden High. (In fact, the only current choice district in Camden County is Brooklawn Public School, a K-8 school that took in 17 kids at last count from around the county.) What possible incentive would there be for Cherry Hill (where high school enrollment has declined by 147 kids over the last few years, so you know there are empty seats) to take in needy kids from Camden High? And there’s no disregard intended toward Cherry Hill; indeed, every poor urban district in New Jersey has its own wealthy counterpart within commuting distance.

It’s time for the financial incentives recommended by the Rutgers team. It’s time for a mandate that requires affluent districts with empty seats to fill some percentage of those seats with eager, needy students. In the context of our total educational budget, the added expense is minimal. In the context of our struggle for education equity and efficiency within a highly segregated and expensive school system, the benefits are great.

Maybe it’s time for all legislators to acknowledge — much of the public already has — that our peculiar New Jersey olio of public education ghettoizes our poorest students in failing schools while lustrous halls of learning stand just a few miles down the road.

A meaningful interdistrict program, one that recognizes the urgency of public school choice, is within reach. Now we need our elected officials to exercise a bolder grasp.