Warp Speed for Interdistrict School Choice

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The Philadelphia Inquirer gives us a status report on our embryonic Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, conceived in 2000 as a five-year pilot. It’s been fairly successful within its circumscribed limits and could offer choices for kids stuck in falling schools if the Legislature gives a thumbs-up to move it off pilot-status, where it’s been sitting for the last 4 years in spite of recommendations for expansion. Right now its constraints include limiting receiving districts to one per county and limiting the number of kids allowed to transfer to 2% per grade from the sending school. The new bill would allow more than one district per county to be labeled as a receiving district and expands the quota of kids allowed to transfer to 15% per grade or 10% of a school. In its current configuration the program serves about 900 kids who, because they’re lucky enough to have a receiving district within their county (15 of our 21 counties do) can get out of a failing school and into a higher-achieving one.

As we’ve reported before,
sometimes the non-expanded version doesn’t work so well. Each district gets to volunteer (or not) to be a “choice district.” In Mercer County, for example, the only district to raise its hand is Trenton School District. Therefore, all those kids at Princeton High, where 100% pass the 11th grade HSPA, can elect to attend Trenton Central High where 48% of kids can pass the HSPA. In Burlington County, the volunteer is Green Bank, an impoverished K-8 district with a total population of 69 kids. If you want to take advantage of Interdistrict School Choice and you’re a high school student in Burlington, tough luck.

By all reports, the current group of kids who do elect to take go this route are happy, well-adjusted, and eager to take advantage of greater educational opportunity. (The Inquirer piece interviews a mother who exudes gratitude that her daughter can attend a school outside of her home district of Camden.) So why has the expansion been put in suspended animation for the last 4 years?

“This is all about providing opportunity,” said NJEA spokesman Stephen Wollmer, “but you have to ensure you’re very careful you don’t deny opportunity to the kids who stay behind.”

This is actually the same argument used against charter schools: if a kid is lucky enough to have proactive parents who show up at charter school lotteries, then this hurts the home school by “creaming off” the best kids and leaving the unlucky ones in an even lower-achieving environment. It’s a strange sort of logic. While everyone agrees that this child might be better off at a charter or an interdistrict choice school, the needs of the one – the kid with the proactive parents — are deemed less worthy than the needs of the many – the kids stuck back at the original school. Misery loves company? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? (We think that’s from a Star Trek movie.) Odds are we’ll get to expand the Interdistrict School Choice Program now that Christie’s behind it and Senator Turner is pushing hard, noting that legislative approval of its expansion could help N.J.’s Race To The Top application (due in less than a month). May it live long and prosper.

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