New Jersey’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program is a largely unknown reform model whose time may have come. The voluntary program began as a five-year pilot ten years ago, and is still going strong and producing positive results. But its small size – it serves just 1,000 children in 16 school districts statewide – restricts its impact.
Students from 141 “sender” school districts in total have taken advantage of the program to enroll in neighboring “choice” districts. In some districts, students applying have exceeded available slots in every year of the program’s existence, although this popularity varies widely.
Choice districts cannot set admissions policies, so lotteries (with sibling preference) are used when demand exceeds open seats. They receive categorical school choice aid from the state for each student they enroll, in additional to other categorical aid associated with each student. The program also provides sender districts impact aid for each of its resident students enrolled in a choice district, even though these districts are no longer responsible for providing their education. They receive 75 percent of state Core Curriculum Standards Aid for the first year, 50 percent for the second year, and 25 percent for the third.
Despite this, it is sender school districts that have been a major obstacle to growth. At least 63 districts have passed resolutions limiting the number of their own students allowed to participate.
The program’s benefits for children are documented, if unscientific. Most children “generally have integrated well” into their new schools, presenting no special problems or needs, according to an independent study of the program by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy. Choice districts have reported using the funds to hire additional staff, reduce class size and offer new programs, according to the analysis. The state has not collected individual student achievement data. While some districts have produced their own data, limited and mixed results resist meaningful comparisons.
Many, including the state’s Department of Education, believe that expanding the program would produce a greater positive impact by incorporating some substantive changes:
• Black and Latino children remain under-represented in the choice program, relative to their home school districts. A larger program could be a useful tool combating racial imbalance, minority achievement gaps, and other inequities that persist in many school districts.
• Incentives could be added for districts to enroll children currently served by chronically underperforming schools. Federal No Child Left Behind Act policies prescribe public school choice within districts with failing schools, but not interdistrict choice.
• Fine-tuning funding mechanisms: for instance, a spending freeze has blocked choice districts that enrolled after the program began from receiving categorical per-pupil funding from the state.
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