Here’s a lame duck bill that’s not so lame: yesterday the Assembly Education Committee approved S2982, a bill sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner that revives the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act of 1999, a five-year pilot program that allowed children to cross district lines if a school was willing to take them. Its reincarnation is apparently due to Christie’s platform of school choice and Race To The Top’s emphasis on reform.
You can read annual reports of the School Choice Act from 2000-2004, after which the pilot program expired, although 850 kids still participate. Reviews have been mostly positive. Recommendations from the reviews of the pilot program mostly involve expanding the number of choice schools (the original legislation limited the number to one from each county and only 15 counties participated) and expanding the quota of kids allowed (up to 2% of each grade of the sending school’s population). Here’s an example of one of the recommendations:
Sending districts are not consistent when they calculate their enrollment restriction percentages pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:36B-8(b). In some sending districts, the grade levels are so small that any calculation does not yield a whole student. These districts do not want to allow any students to participate in the school choice program. In other sending districts, the calculation yields whole students and then percentages of a student, for example 4.2 students. In one sending district, the percentage calculation yielded 1.5 students and there were three students in the lottery with two of those students twins. The district made a determination that only one student was eligible and one of the twins won the lottery. Eventually the sending district allowed the other twin to go to the choice district. This provision needs to be clarified.
The new bill, by the way, raises the number of kids allowed to transfer to 10% of any grade or 15% of any district.
At any rate, it’s a good sign that we’re reviving this program, one of the very few ways public school kids in New Jersey have of exercising school choice and escaping the gallows of their zip code. (Are we hyperbolic? Newsflash: Camden just won the award of most dangerous city in the country.) Nonetheless, there are naysayers. From the Star-Ledger:
“The concern we have is … if enough kids were to move out of a district in one grade or school … it could lead to a cut in services or programs for kids left behind,” said NJEA spokesman Steven Baker. “It was never intended to harm the students who were not taking advantage of the program.”
Ginger Gold Schnitzer of the NJEA said the organization supports choice, but is worried that the higher percentage could hurt the schools in other small districts if they lose a lot of students.
Schnitzer unsuccessfully lobbied Senator Turner to hold off a vote on the bill or to lower the quota of kids allowed to participate. Let’s hope the Legislature has the cojones to resist inevitable pressure to do the same. It’s the right bill at the right time.