With School Choice Growing, NJ Expands Options

April 29, 2012

 With New Jersey’s interdistrict choice program tripling in size the past two years, the Christie administration is tweaking the regulations for the program to make it available to more students.

The new regulations are to be presented to the state Board of Education on Wednesday, opening the program to all ages of children and streamlining the process for school districts to join.

First created as a five-year pilot in 1999, the program has seen big growth since 2010, when the legislature passed amendments to open it up to all school districts that want to participate.

Previously it could be no more than one district per county accepting outside students, virtually capping the growth of the program. In 2010, about 1,000 students used the program at 15 outside districts.

After the amendments, 71 districts now are participating and accepting more than 2,100 students from outside their borders. Next year, that is estimated to grow to more than 3,300 students going to 73 participating districts.

The proposed regulations are in keeping with the new law, putting in place a number of technical changes that together are intended to remove limits for both students and school districts.

“These are common sense improvements to allow additional flexibility and increase the number of students eligible for the Interdistrict Choice Program,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

For instance, current regulations limit the program to students no older than entering ninth grade. The proposal would open it to all years of high school.

Another proposed regulation would allow students from private schools or in home schooling to enroll in choice districts, once seats have been made available to eligible public school students.

The application process for families would also be streamlined under the new regulations. Now held in two cycles, there would be just one application period in the fall prior to admission. The commissioner may also waive those timelines “if it is show to be a student’s best interest.”

The lead sponsor of the new law, state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), said she hopes the new regulations will smooth some of the concerns she has heard in the implementation of the larger program.

Still, not all issues are resolved, as Jasey said districts continue to raise worries about the rising cost of transporting students who attend outside districts. The law requires the sending districts to pay for transportation of up to 20 miles. The state pays the tuition costs, with Gov. Chris Christie adding an additional $14 million in his budget for next year.

“As we go through this process and more and more districts are participating, I think we will need to revisit that,” Jasey said yesterday of the transportation issue.

Still, she called the program’s growth a continuing success story for the state, and not just in terms of the added opportunities offered to students.

“It is getting districts and school boards to look at what people want and where to put their resources,” Jasey said.