Location, Location, Location

Yesterday’s Wall St. Journal features an article about a proposal by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to make every open seat in every school in the state available to any student:
Many districts, especially around Detroit, already selectively open their doors to nonresidents to attract more students and the revenue that comes with them under Michigan's enrollment-based school-funding formula. Some districts allow only residents of the same county, or enroll nonresidents only in lower grades. Other districts are completely closed to nonresidents.

The governor's plan would supersede all those restrictions with a simple rule: Any school with space for a nonresident would have to accept that student, using a lottery system if there aren't enough spots for nonresident students who want them. The state would pay the per-pupil allowance allotted to each district, regardless of where its students reside.
In New Jersey we call such a system the Interdistrict Public School Choice program, recently expanded by the Legislature. Like in Michigan ours is purely voluntary and only snips away at the edges of a segregated infrastructure. The Journal piece quotes Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mike Flanagan, who says in reference to the failing schools in Detroit, "I hate to think that there is a kid struggling in one district, and half a mile away over some artificial border is an opening in a proven public school and they don't have access. There are tensions that are racial often, and we need to move beyond that."

Michigan proposes to make the program mandatory. I’ve suggested (see examples here, here, and here) that we do the same in New Jersey. It’s the next logical step in the evolution of a system that strives to offer an equitable public education to kids, regardless of whether live in Trenton or Princeton. Sure, there’s that home rule thing (not to mention those racial tensions Mr. Flanagan refers to, if that’s any different).

Right now the NJ Supreme Court is toiling away on its decision regarding whether our school funding formula cheats needy kids. We know it’s not about money. If it was, then the kids in, say, Asbury Park would be academic superstars at $27K per student per year. But what if those kids had the opportunity to attend school with a culture of achievement?

It’s the old Willingboro/Moorestown dichotomy. Two school districts nine miles apart that might as well be in different countries. Can NJ follow Michigan’s lead and provide access to our great schools for kids who can’t afford the zip code?