NJ’s Embraces School Choice (a little)

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It’s great to report on the successful expansion of our Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows districts to open up empty seats to kids in neighboring communities. IPSCP started as a five-year pilot program in 1999 and included 15 schools and 900 kids. Parents unhappy in their designated school districts could apply for a seat and their home districts paid tuition and transportation. Now 71 districts offer seats to up to 3,126 students. (Here’s the DOE press release, and here’s an article about the program from today’s NJ Spotlight. Spotlight notes that Essex, Mercer, or Middlesex have no IPSCP receiving schools, but our other 18 counties do.)

The program was first implemented by then-Education Commissioner William Librera, who during his tenure wrote a memo pleading for the program’s expansion. But it hovered in suspended animation until last year, when the Legislature unanimously passed a bill making the program permanent.

In our first attempt at Race To The Top money, NJ’s application highlighted the program as a proactive example of our commitment to school choice. It didn’t go over so well. One of the federal reviewers of our application noted, “Interdistrict school choice has reached its capacity for participation. This one (identified) attempt — now at capacity — seems meager in light of the many types of innovative programs available to public schools and LEAs since 1999.”

And NJEA’s leadership wasn’t exactly gung-ho about expansion plans. Said Spokesman Steve Baker back in 2009, “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. It was never intended to harm the students who were not taking advantage of the program.”

Maybe it’s a sign of how things have changed. Even the most ardent opponents of charter school expansion dare breathe nary a word of criticism towards IPSCP, even though local districts pay tuition and transportation for participating students – just like charters. Well, it’s only a few thousand kids. And sending districts, according to the bill, can pass a resolution restricting the number of kids they send out to choice schools to 10% of number of students per grade or 15% of total students.

The Spotlight piece quotes Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (whose happens to represent Essex, one of the three counties without any IPSCP receiving districts): “It sounds like we’re meeting a need. It’s allowing districts to be creative and expand their outreach. And, “I think we need to get past the parochialism,” she said. “Students can benefit when going to school in other communities and with other children.”

Jasey, in fact, was one of the sponsors of the Assembly bill that expanded the program. She’s no fan of charter schools, however, — which is another way to allow kids to benefit from educational choice — and is also sponsoring A3582, which would subject all aspiring charters to a local vote. I guess parochialism is where you find it.

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