Just How Popular is School Choice in New Jersey? Too Popular for the Christie Administration.

Last week at WHYY Newsworks I wrote about the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program’s (IPSCP) growing pains, which have been largely inflicted by the NJ Department of Education. Recap: NJ state law sets up a procedure for districts to open seats to students residing in neighboring districts and the State pays much of the tab, about $10,000 per student. Popularity, apparently, breeds contempt: the State just imposed a 5% growth cap.

IPSCP  is wildly popular among children and families eager for public school choice.  In 2010, when IPSCP was still in pilot form and strictly circumscribed -- no more than one district per county, for example --16 districts (out of NJ's 591) registered as Choice Districts and 900 kids (out of NJ's 1.4 million schoolchildren) had options other than their home districts. Over the last three years the program has grown so quickly that 136 districts are now Choice and 5,000 students will cross district boundaries.

As NJ Spotlight reiterates today, the State can’t afford the tab so it’s imposed a 5% growth cap. This “cap” is nowhere to be found in either administrative code related to the 2010 Interdistrict Public School Choice Act or in DOE regulations. But never mind:  “Without a doubt, it is an immensely popular program, and everyone would love to see it grow as it has been growing,” said Michael Yaple, spokesman for the state education department. “But we can’t write a blank check.”

NJ Spotlight reports that Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, primary sponsor of the 2010 legislation, called the DOE’s response “ill-advised” and “short-sighted.” 
“The decision of the DOE to cap the program by imposing a 5 percent growth limit is very troublesome to me, and I am disappointed by the decision. It circumvents the intent of the Legislature to expand the program. Even more troubling, it thwarts the ability of interested families to follow through on their decision as to how to best meet their children's needs in a public school setting.”
For a real-life example of how this circumvention of legislative law affects kids and families, check out this article from the Hopewell Valley News. Hopewell Valley School District, a great district in Mercer County, was approved as a Choice district this past Fall, the first Mercer County district to offer seats to children from neighboring districts. This means that children consigned to Trenton’s troubled school system could attend one of three programs in Hopewell: an elementary Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) for fourth graders, a single-gender program for boys entering first grade, and a performing arts academy for ninth graders.

Hopewell is still a Choice district,  but with far fewer seats available because of the 5% cap.

Now, Trenton has a $267 million per year operating budget for its 11,000 kids. All but $21 million comes from the State.  The graduation rate in Trenton is  59%, one of the worst records in the state, and the DOE Performance Report notes that Trenton Central High School “is meeting 0% of its performance targets in the area of Graduation and Post-Secondary."

Really? The State can’t afford to drop $10K a kid to send them to Hopewell and give them a shot at college and career readiness? Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish.

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