State Caps Interdistrict School Choice Program; Christie, Cerf, and DOE on the Wrong Side

Here’s a blow for school choice supporters: the Courier Post reports today that the NJ Department of Education has capped enrollment for the state’s popular Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. IPSCP, which was approved through an act of  the State Legislature, allows volunteer school districts with extra room to offer seats to students outside traditional district boundaries.

The program had slow growth for many years, but a sense of economic urgency spurred many more districts to apply.  Currently 137 Choice districts enroll over 5,000 kids. It's just a tiny fraction of the state's 1.3 million schoolchildren, but the program sets a high mark for  liberating students and schools from the constraints of zip code education.

However, this summer and autumn the state kept missing deadlines for new choice approvals and requests for extra seats. Administrators, families, and the folks at  New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association were frustrated. Finally, today,  official word: enrollment growth will be capped at 5% to control costs, which will amount this year to $49 million.

Some districts, according to the Post, will leave the program. Administrators are calling the DOE’s decision “disheartening” and without “a lot of sense.” That’s true : here, after all, is NJ’s one fully-accepted escape hatch for students locked in by zip code to a district that,  for one reason or another, is unsatisfactory. No charter school politics, no voucher talk, just traditional public schools welcoming kids who live in the next neighborhood.

Gov. Christie and Comm. Cerf love to talk about expansion of educational opportunity, especially for low-income kids. Here’s a program that provides that benefit, and it's backed by unions, reform advocates, school districts, and families.Why cap that?

The DOE might want to check out the IPSCP bill language, which speaks directly to enrollment variables. These include diversity, district academic performance, and fiscal impacts on the districts (not the state). For example:
8. a. (1) The school board of a sending district may adopt a resolution to restrict enrollment of its students in a choice district to a maximum of 10% of the number of students per grade level per year limited by any resolution adopted pursuant to this paragraph and 15% of the total number of students enrolled in the sending district, provided that the resolution shall be subject to approval by the commissioner upon a determination that the resolution is in the best interest of the district's students and that it will not adversely affect the district's programs, services, operations, or fiscal conditions, and that the resolution will not adversely affect or limit the diversity of the remainder of the student population in the district who do not participate in the choice program.
Maybe I missed it, but I can’t find any language in the bill that allows the DOE to indiscriminately and arbitrarily cap enrollment growth based on state budget impact.

Finally, during the last Christie/Buono debate, Gov. Christie spoke directly to the need for finding efficiencies amidst NJ's municipal madness of 565 towns and 591 school districts. IPSCP is a great model for our crazed inefficiencies, one way to break down mythical fortresses between neighboring towns. Kids go to school here or there, sharing services and towns. There's nothing for anyone not to like, besides maybe home rule fanatics. Surely this is the wrong program to cut and the wrong message to send as we continue to struggle to offer kids options and access to educational success.

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