NJ’s School-Choice Program Might Be Too Popular for Its Own Good

John Mooney | November 27, 2013 | Education
Rising costs and enrollment prompt state to order spending caps, limits on pupil transfers

With a new wave of applications due next week, New Jersey’s interdistrict school-choice program continues to grow in popularity – maybe too much.

The state has added another 27 districts that will be permitted to accept students from other communities next year, bringing the total to 136 districts overall or roughly a quarter of all districts statewide.

This year, nearly 5,000 students were taking advantage of the program, a huge expansion from the tiny pilot program that existed in the state for much of the last decade.

The number of students attending school in other districts is sure to grow, with student applications to attend choice districts next year due on Monday.

At the same time, the program has also gotten expensive, and the Christie administration for the first time is trying to rein in enrollment – or at least the enrollment it will pay for.

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As an incentive for districts to join, the state has paid upfront the per-pupil costs for students enrolled in the program, more than $10,000 for each child this year. That amounts to close to $50 million in the state budget this year.

But in a memo sent to choice districts in October, the state Department of Education said next year’s state budget would likely see only a 5 percent increase in choice aid, limiting how many students existing choice districts might add and cutting back on new choice districts’ planned enrollments as well.

The department has also met with representatives of choice districts around the state to explain how the program will operate, and last week posted the presentation.

“Without a doubt, it is an immensely popular program, and everyone would love to see it grow as it has been growing,” said Michael Yaple, spokesman for the state education department. “But we can’t write a blank check.”

“The cost is now over $49 million, and the goal is to allow as many new districts in as we can, while still allowing some growth in existing programs,” Yaple continued. “The growth needs to be managed, so that this can be sustainable.”

The state’s guidelines limited existing programs to adding no more than a 5 percent increase in their choice enrollments. The rules also restricted programs in their first year to enrolling just one-quarter of the number of students they were approved for.

But that has put a crimp in a program that was growing with little restraint since it was expanded in 2010 from a pilot program encompassing 15 districts. And now there are concerns among districts that were counting on the added students and the state aid they would bring.

The chief sponsor of the law expanding the program three years ago called the cap “ill-advised and short-sighted,” and urged state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to reconsider.

“The decision of the DOE to cap the program by imposing a 5 percent growth limit is very troublesome to me, and I am disappointed by the decision,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex).

“It circumvents the intent of the Legislature to expand the program,” she said. “Even more troubling, it thwarts the ability of interested families to follow through on their decision as to how to best meet their children’s needs in a public school setting.”

Folsom has been one of the leading choice districts since the program’s launch – half of its students now come from other districts. The cap won’t be much a problem for the district next year, as there are only a handful of available seats anyway, said Superintendent Evelyn Browne.

But the trouble arises at Hammonton High School, where Folsom sends its students. Browne yesterday met with close to three dozen families concerned that Hammonton now has a cap on the number of Folsom students it can accept, forcing others into a lottery.

“They have always looked forward to going into Hammonton, but this cap is frustrating a lot of people right now,” Browne said.

She said that the choice program has all but saved her tiny district, saying it allowed for the addition of technology and programs such as broadcasting.

“Really the choice program has made that happen,” she said.

But now there is uncertainty over whether Folsom students will then move to Hammonton High School.

“It’s very messy right now,” she said. “Many of my families have written the governor, and after today’s meeting, I’m guessing there will be quite the letter writing campaign.”