School Choice Update

Here’s Education Law Center’s David Sciarra on the non-movement (according to NJ Spotlight) of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, or the voucher bill: “We don’t want to see it get out of here,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “We don’t want it to get any momentum. Who knows what would happen if it got out of committee." Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, mainly due to the efforts of Budget Committee Chair Paul Sarlo. In a companion piece, John Mooney looks at a bill that got quadrilateral support (i.e., Republican, Democrat, education reformer, status quo proponent), the Interdistrict School Choice program, stuck in post-pilot purgatory since 2005 and now ready to be adopted and expanded.

Senate Bill 1073,
sponsored by Shirley Turner, continues the small but successful program that currently allows 919 kids to cross school district boundaries and attend a presumably better “choice district.” According to NJ Spotlight, just under one-third of the participants attend Englewood schools, which helped them diversify, and about one-fourth attend Folsom Elementary School in Hammonton.

It’s a no-brainer to authorize the program’s continuity; the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. Becoming a “choice district,” i.e., opening vacancies to students outside district boundaries, is totally voluntary and carries with it no incentives. According to a Fiscal Impact Statement from the Office of Legislative Services, “the net effect would be no change in total revenue to the choice district (unless the increase in aid associated with the enrollment of choice students exceeds the amount of adjustment aid received).”

Here’s a better idea, if hugely unpopular: require all high-performing districts with empty seats to allow students in neighboring districts to attend. Take our favorite example: Willingboro High School in Burlington County, a dysfunctional, chronically failing district, and Moorestown High School, a high-achieving district nine miles away. According to the most recent DOE data, Moorestown High’s freshman class numbered 324 students. The sophomore class was 364 students. Does that mean that Moorestown High has 40 empty seats? What if Moorestown was required to fill those seats with kids trapped in a nearby chronically failing school? Would that be a better use of taxpayer dollars? Would that offer better academic opportunities for Willingboro’s kids confined within a separate and unequal school district?

When New Jersey gets serious about zip codes not determining academic destiny, then we’ll have meaningful interdistrict school choice.

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