It’s a big day for advocates of NJ’s fledgling Interdistrict School Choice program, which has been in suspended animation since 2005 when the pilot expired (though about 1000 students are still served). The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to hear a bill this morning that would make the program a permanent feature of NJ’s public school system. The bill, which coasted through the Assembly last month, is sponsored in the Senate by Shirley Turner and Tom Kean, Jr. Back when the pilot expired, then-Commisioner William L. Librera pushed hard for reauthorization (here’s his report) but to no avail.
Odds are that the bill will pass muster in Committee and the Senate, and it’s a great baby step towards opening up successful schools to children and families trapped in neighboring failing schools. Here’s another benefit: the timing is perfect for our next Race To The Top application, rumored to be unveiled any time now, though so much depends on NJEA support.
The official reviews of our first heat in the federal competition garnered this criticism of NJ’s narrow attempt to allow students to cross district lines: “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.” While NJEA’s leadership originally supported the fiercely circumscribed program (only one “choice” district per county, districts must volunteer regardless of empty seats), it’s remained lukewarm about efforts to increase capacity. Here’s NJEA’s Steven 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."
It’s the same argument waylaid against any sort of school choice, most specifically charter schools (and not just by NJEA; Diane Ravitch is the president of that club). Offer choice to students and you’ll “cream” off the most motivated families, leaving the traditional public schools worse off. Here’s a tip to NJEA’s leadership: let this one go. It’s going to pass through the Senate and voicing recalcitrance only heightens the perception that NJEA is deadset on undermining any sort of education reform. How about a press release that praises the bill’s intention to offer kids a way out of chronically failing schools? At least that’s one feature of our Race To The Top application that NJEA can embrace. It’s a win-win opportunity for the DOE and NJEA.