School Choice Program Finds Support Among Educators, Lawmakers.

Minhaj Hassan | State Street Wire
04/09/12

 TRENTON – School choice can oftentimes be used as a code phrase for vouchers, a lightning rod of an issue that is generally opposed by teachers unions but favored by Gov. Chris Christie.

With this kind of split, it might seem that there is little chance for any program involving  school choice to go forward.

In actuality, there is such a program that has been around for about a decade, even if it’s not all that well known. And it’s a program that both the Christie Administration and the state’s largest teachers union support.

The Interdistrict School Choice Program enables participating school districts to take in students from surrounding schools - at no additional cost to the parents.

Student enrollment in the program has tripled over the past three years to a projected 3,356 students in 73 districts in 2012-13, according to the Governor’s Office.  In 2011, it added some 56 school districts.  For the 2011-12 fiscal year, 71 districts are participating in the program, serving 2,131 students.

Christie’s fiscal year 2013 budget calls for an additional $14.2 million for the Interdistrict School Choice program, which would bring the total up to $36.5 million. For the current fiscal year, the amount budgeted for the program is $22.3 million.

How it works

In the Interdistrict School Choice Program, the sending district does not have to participate in the program in order for the student to attend a nearby choice school.  However, the sending district’s administrators have to sign off on it.

The main benefit for a participating choice school district is more money from the state, as state aid is given on a per-pupil basis. Essentially, the more students, the more state aid for the district. This year, the per-student aid is about $11,300.

There are some conditions that must be fulfilled for a child to be part of the Interdistrict School Choice Program. One is that the school the child chooses to attend cannot be more than 20 miles from his or her home.

Also, there’s a transportation requirement. Previously, the sending district had to provide the busing, so long as the choice schools fell within the radius. However, that rule changed about a year ago, in that it would enable a child’s original school district to just pay $884 to the parent in lieu of busing students, which many times is much more costly. 

And, in some school districts, students must enroll in certain courses and programs in order for them to attend the school through the choice program.

The program has also changed in that students from school districts in need of improvement aren’t the only ones who can participate. Any district that has the capacity and wants to participate can do so by receiving permission from the state Education Department.

Some school districts that were looking into the program later decided against participating in it. For example, Belvidere in Warren County was in it for a time but later dropped out.  Ocean Gate in Ocean County was unable to attract students due to transportation problems.  Bogota in Bergen County accepted students for a while, but the new superintendent decided not to accept any students this year.

Monetary and educational benefits

School officials State Street Wire spoke with said parents who choose to send their kids to schools other than the ones in their town said it’s not necessarily for academic reasons; they don’t have to reveal their reasons for going elsewhere.

It could be for other reasons, such as the receiving school offering a certain sport or extracurricular activity that the sending school doesn’t offer, or it could be a situation in which parents want their child to avoid bullying that’s going on in the sending school.

But there is a catch. School districts that participate only have so many slots open, sometimes very few of them. So, not every child who wants to attend another school could do so if spots in a particular grade level aren’t available.

Dennis Mack, who serves as joint superintendent of the Wharton and Mine Hill school districts in Morris County, said both school districts have benefited greatly from the state program.

Mine Hill has participated for some 10 years, and Wharton, which will complete its first year of participation in June, will continue with the program in the next school year, 2012-13.

There are 86 school choice kids in the grades K-6 Mine Hill school district, which has a total of 415 students. Next school year, the school will accept 90 students through the program.

Wharton will also accept more students next year. This year, there were 17 students coming to the school through the program. In the 2012-13 school year, there will be 46 students participating.

Students attending the schools come from such districts as Dover, East Orange, Byram, Hopatcong and Netcong.

“The program definitely helps financially,” Mack said in a phone interview. “It’s good for a district that’s not really large.”

Mine Hill received some $1 million through the Choice program and Wharton approximately $400,000, according to Mack. 

There are other benefits to the program besides money, according to Mack.

“The kids come from different school districts and get to know students they normally wouldn’t have,” he said. “They get to make new friends.”

The money helps the schools provide more and better programs for students, as well as add staff, mostly teachers. In some cases, part-time staff has been upgraded to full-time.

“It’s working well for our district,” Mack said.

While Mack believes the program is overall a good thing, it could produce some problems, largely from a perception point of view.  Kids could be bounced from district to district, not having much stability, if various personal goals are not met.

Also, there could be some resentment from taxpayers in that a student may be receiving high-quality educational benefits in the receiving district, even though that student’s parents may reside in a sending district where the taxes are lower.

Bound Brook

Bound Brook school district in Somerset County decided last year to open up its high school to the Interdistrict School Choice Program. Serving a mostly working-class demographic, the high school has a certain advantage, in that it provides biomedical and engineering programs.

As a result, any student who chooses to come to the high school must enroll in one of those courses, school Principal Dan Gallagher said.  In the current school year, 22 students participated in the program, coming from such municipalities as Plainfield, Piscataway, Middlesex, Watching, Dunellen and Hillsborough. 

“We’re getting a lot of good students who do well academically,” he said. “It also helps provide more diversity and culture.”

Gallagher said he had turned down applicants, for reasons such as poor attendance and disciplinary issues. In the 2012-13 school year, some 30 students will come to the high school through the school choice program.

In addition to providing the science classes that other school districts don’t, Gallagher said applicants are drawn to Bound Brook High for its small school atmosphere. The school has only about 500 students.

Like other school districts, Bound Brook has benefited financially through its participation in the program. Gallagher said that in his opinion, Bound Brook has been one of the more underfunded districts, but that participation in the school choice program has helped Bound Brook generate $220,000, enabling the school to purchase Apple IPads for all students in the upcoming school year and phase out textbooks.

If there’s one kink about the program he’d like to see straightened, it would be finding a better way to get the information out to the public about the program. He said he’s received several messages inquiring about the program, but the deadline for applying has passed.

“I’m returning a bunch of calls about the program,” he said.

The Bellmawr school district in Camden County had just one slot open, which was filled by a seventh-grade girl from Camden. Next year, it will take five students from neighboring municipalities such as Willingboro, Audubon and Winslow.

The district was about to see its population shrink and wanted to keep its state aid on par for the upcoming school year. Participating in the school choice program was beneficial.

“We haven’t had any problem,” said Tricia Bartley, director of special services for Bellmawr School District, which has about 1,100 students.

‘You take a chance’

If there are any disciplinary and academic problems that come up that were not initially detected, the receiving school district cannot return that student to the sending school district.

“We cannot deny them just because certain issues come up,” Bartley said. “You take a chance.”

Also, overcrowding is more likely to be a problem in school districts than not having enough slots, giving some of those receiving school districts little incentive to take more students.

“Many are already maxed out,” she said.

Another school district that has participated in the Interdistrict School Choice Program – in this  case for 10 years - is Upper Freehold Regional in Allentown.  Each year, it accepts 15 students through the choice program, according to Patrick Leary, director of guidance at the school district.

The students generally come from towns like Plumsted, Robbinsville, Jackson, West Windsor, Florence and Bordentown. Students who choose to participate must take one of its agricultural or equine science courses once a year.

Applicants are selected randomly, with each one assigned a number.

“It’s truly a lottery system,” Leary said.

Before a number is assigned, Leary reviews their applications and decides which ones make the cut. Like other districts, he can deny the applicants if their disciplinary records raise red flags.

He believes it’s a good thing districts can now go through such records. Previously, the state didn’t allow them to do so.

“It gives us more insight about the student,” he said. 

Another school district that’s participating is Englewood.

The Bergen County-based school district has participated in the Interdistrict School Choice Program since 2002. Unlike most of the participating districts, though, Englewood was court ordered to integrate its high school. As a result, the school district created the Dwight Morrow Academies at Englewood. The school has about 500 students, half from Englewood and half from several towns in Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties.

The participating school districts are not the only ones praising the state school choice program. The New Jersey Education Association said it supports the program.

“We’re fine with it as long as there’s mutual agreement between the sending and receiving districts,” said NJEA Communications Director Steve Wollomer.

Frank Belluscio, communications director for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the organization supports the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, saying “it allows school districts with sufficient capacity to accept students from outside of the community, while providing an option to parents and students.”

At least one legislator, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D-20), of Newark, would like to see the program expanded. Ruiz, who has introduced bills to expand charter schools and school choice, pointed out that in her home county of Essex, which includes Newark, none of the school districts participate in the Interdistrict School Choice Program.

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