Snaps to the Assembly

Give a round of applause to the Assembly for passing A-355, which makes the pilot Interdistrict School Choice program permanent. What’s not to like? Kids in failing schools can cross district lines to attend a more successful school (see NJ Left Behind previous coverage here and here). And those more successful schools, according to a report from Rutgers, “are almost unanimous in their support of the Program and their reports of its positive fiscal and educational impact.”

But the Assembly missed an opportunity to fine-tune the program, first begun in 2000 as a five-year pilot. The Rutgers report, a “Program and Policy Analysis” of our fledgling interdistrict efforts, points out that Black and Hispanic kids participate at a lower rate than Whites and Asians. Most importantly,
New Jersey offers choice to its public school students to a much lesser degree than other states. One way to expand interdistrict choice is to make district participation mandatory rather than voluntary, or to combine a voluntary program, available in all districts for all students, with a mandatory program targeted to specific districts, schools or students. A fully voluntary program also could result in some expansion, but suburban districts are not likely to respond in large numbers to a voluntary program without some incentive.
Right now a receiving district’s participation in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program is purely voluntary. Any school in any county can raise its hand and offer to provide a (better) education to kids in a different school in the same county. So let’s picture it: Cherry Hill in Camden County has some empty seats. How quickly will it offer those slots to kids in Camden City? How eager is Moorestown in Burlington to offer educational opportunities to kids in Willingboro? Let’s say that Princeton in Mercer County has some empty seats. Any takers in Trenton?

Not that there aren’t any volunteers. While no public district in Mercer County asked to be a receiving district, Brooklawn Public Schools has 17 seats available for Camden County students in grades K-8 and Green Bank School in Burlington took 2 kids in during the 2009-2010 school year.

See the problem? A purely voluntary program reaps few opportunities for those Trenton, Camden, and Willingboro students. Either we need to offer financial incentives for districts that participate or we need a mandatory program. Until the Assembly sharpens up (Bret Schundler would start talking about social justice right about now) kids in failing schools will remain short-changed and segregated while right around the corner seats in high-performing districts will remain empty.