School-Choice Opportunities Likely to Shrink Under New, Cash-Strapped State Budget

John Mooney | January 9, 2015 | Education
Expansion of popular program allowing public-school students to switch districts left available funds depleted

kids on bus
The Christie administration caused a stir last year when it capped funding for New Jersey’s fast-expanding public-school choice program.

The next state budget could limit the funding even further.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said this week that the administration is exploring the possibility of limiting the program to children from lower-performing schools or those with a demonstrated need.

The initiative — started close to two decades ago as a small pilot program — exploded in popularity five years ago when it was opened up to any interested school district, with participation growing five-fold.

Under the program, nearly 5,000 students attended schools outside their hometowns last year, with the state paying first-year costs that amounted to $50 million. About 135 districts are participating by accepting outside students this year.

But the expansion and increased aid quickly used up the money available for the program. Hespe said Wednesday that other means must be found.

“That unsustainable growth makes us revisit all the assumptions that went into the original law,” Hespe said after this week’s State Board of Education meeting.

“That was the original intent of the interdistrict program, to provide better educational opportunities to those who don’t have them now,” he said. “We need to go back and ask that question. Are we serving the students we originally wanted to serve?”

Hespe said there are instances now where students already attending decent schools are switching to similar schools, in some cases helping those receiving districts improve with the additional aid.

“That may be good, but was that the original intent of the law?” he said.

Others have maintained that the program has virtually propped up some districts, and in some cases has become a recruiting tool for high-school sports teams.

Asked specifically asked whether the administration would include such limits in the upcoming budget, Hespe said: “That would possibly be one way to refine the law, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”

“Certainly one of the questions in the budget will be how do we fund the interdistrict choice law,” he said. “We haven’t answered it yet.”

Valarie Smith, director of the association representing the choice districts, said yesterday that her group has been in discussions with the education department about how to refine the funding law.

But she said it would oppose any move to limit the program to only serve students coming out of the lowest-performing schools.

“Our Association would want to see what the DOE means by ‘need,’ ” Smith said in an email. “If that definition is configured just for students in failing school districts, we would oppose that. The number one reason for school choice, as documented by our own research and a survey conducted by the DOE, is environmental factors (like) bullying, my child needs a fresh start, my child doesn’t ‘fit in.’ “