Education in the Media
N.J. Program that Lets Students Attend Out-of-town Public Schools Growing in PopularitySeptember 16, 2012
The Morris Plains School District will hold open houses at the district’s two schools early next month, to show off the facilities and programs to parents.
The families expected to visit the Borough School and Mountain Way School on Oct. 2 won’t be from Morris Plains, however. Instead, the district is looking to showcase its small class sizes, technology and award-winning staff to families and students from other communities, who would come to school in Morris Plains under a program called interdistrict school choice — and who would bring welcome state aid with them.
“It’s a tremendous way to improve local programs and generate revenue,” said Morris Plains Superintendent Ernest Palestis, who said the district hopes to enroll 36 choice students in 2013, which could bring in $450,000 a year. “It’s very difficult for a school in an environment that’s (budget) capped. Choice gives us a welcome revenue source.”
Interdistrict choice was signed into law in 2010, after operating for years as a pilot program in a handful of districts. While the numbers are still small statewide, the number of choice students is expected to almost double next year, from 3,357 students to 6,144, and the number of districts taking in choice kids will go from 73 to 109.
While many “receiving” districts in the past were in rural southern counties or urban areas, a growing number are signing up in wealthier suburban counties such as Morris, Hunterdon and Sussex. Many school officials there say the additional state aid is a boon at a time of tight expenses and budget caps.
In Hunterdon County, Hunterdon Central Regional High School and the Tewksbury school district are among those who hope to enroll choice students next year.
Tewksbury Interim Superintendent Jim Gamble said the 700-student district expects enrollment to decline — a drop of about 130 students over the next five years — and adding choice students would help support programs and staffing.
“It’s definitely a revenue source that’s beneficial to a school district,” he said. Gamble said hopes are that choice students will also add diversity.
Families interested in choice have to notify their home district by Nov. 2.“It’s definitely a revenue source that’s beneficial to a school district,” he said. Gamble said hopes are that choice students will also add diversity.
Bound Brook, in Somerset County, began accepting choice students last year, and this year will educate 24 out-of-district kids. Revenue from those students let the district buy 500 iPads for high school students, which were distributed on the first day of school.
“If you get school choice money, it frees up other money so you can do different things,” said Bound Brook High School Principal Dan Gallagher. He said the district expects to receive about $350,000 this year from school choice.
He said budget caps have made schools “resourceful.”
“School choice is one of those ways to generate funds for the district. We’re not making millions of dollars, but we’re making enough to stay alive and put together better programs for our kids,” Gallagher said.
Districts get extra state aid for choice students, based on a formula that includes the sending district’s ability to raise local taxes. The range is $2,700 to $16,000 per student, but averages about $9,300 per student. Receiving districts also get “regular” state aid for the choice kids.
Sending districts must either transport students to a choice school within a 20-mile radius, or pay about $880 per year to the student in lieu of transportation.
One choice student, Isaiah Williams, 17, of Piscataway, said he began attending Bound Brook High School last year for the engineering academy offered there.
“I feel like I’ve been here my whole life,” Isaiah said. As a bonus, the teen said he is able to play more sports in the smaller school, “but that was an added-on thing. That’s not the reason.”
As more districts get into the choice arena, however, some questions are being raised.
Piscataway Assistant Superintendent Teresa Rafferty said she is “not especially worried” that two students left her district for Bound Brook High School.
Rafferty said her 7,400-student district sends more kids to charter schools than to choice: Some 14 Piscataway children attend a variety of charter schools.
But she questioned why districts would use choice students to help their bottom line.
“If there are declining enrollments or dwindling revenues, I’m not sure this is the right avenue. Right now, I truly believe if people live in Piscataway, they chose Piscataway for a reason, and want to go to Piscataway schools,” she said.
“I don’t think Bound Brook High School is offering anything Piscataway does not,” she said.