When it comes to school choice, we’ve established the ladder, now we should move up the steps

An article this week in the Asbury Park Press describes conditions two years ago at the tiny single-building school district in Deal (Monmouth County) where “the school roof leaked, the computers were obsolete and half of the teachers were part time.”

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind

An article this week in the Asbury Park Press describes conditions two years ago at the tiny single-building school district in Deal (Monmouth County) where “the school roof leaked, the computers were obsolete and half of the teachers were part-time.” Then, in a flash of inspiration, Superintendent Anthony Moro signed up Deal for New Jersey’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP).

Now able to admit students from outside districts at their home districts’ expense, Moro is celebrating an increase in cash, technology, full-time teachers, and solvency. Of the 123 current students in his school, 56 are IPSCP kids, and he hopes to add another 60 more.

Once a little-known pilot program, IPSCP was made permanent by the State Legislature in 2010; new regulations expanded the program’s reach last year. Local school boards can vote to participate, thereby accepting students from other schools within their county and establishing the number of openings per grade level. According to the NJ DOE, “the program is designed to educational opportunities for students and their families by providing students with the option of attending a public school outside their district of residence without cost to their parents.”

After piddling along, participation is now up to 3,356 students who attend 73 volunteer districts from 17 of our 21 counties. (Eschewing participation are Essex, Hudson, Passaic, and Middlesex.) Another 40 N.J. school districts plan to join the program, offering their empty seats to students who live outside their borders, with the students’ home district paying for tuition (about $11,500 per child) and transportation (within 20 miles).

Oh no! It’s school choice!

Just consider the woes: unanticipated expenses for sending districts; a drain on local public funds; erosion of local control; participation dependent on parental advocacy. It’s everything the anti-choice community loves to hate about school choice, particularly charter schools and corporate-sponsored scholarships.

Yet IPSCP remains unscathed. What is it about this form of school choice that makes it palatable to everyone from teacher union officials to legislators to school boards?

Two factors come to mind. The first is the support of local lobbyists, in part because, unlike public charter schools or parochial schools, IPSCP schools employ only unionized teachers and staff members. There’s no dent in NJEA’s annual revenue from member dues (about $130 million per year) and, thus, no reason to protest.

New Jersey School Boards Association is sanguine: says spokesman Frank Bellusci, “we’re very supportive of interdistrict choice in the public sector.”

The second factor is the program’s unthreatening scale. While IPSCP’s growth is impressive, 3,356 students is a tiny fraction of New Jersey’s 1.3 million students. Education reform proponents like to debate the effectiveness of small incremental changes to a faltering public education system versus big systemic changes. This perplexity is best embodied in an ongoing argument between status quo stalwart Dr. Diane Ravitch and her colleague, reform convert Chester E. Finn. Finn explains, “Diane says, ‘Let’s return to the old public school system,'” he said. “I say let’s blow it up.”

Is NJ’s Interdistrict School Choice Program’s success an argument for the effectiveness of incremental change? Perhaps. Certainly, according to any policy review and program evaluation by Rutgers, the program has improved education outcomes for the children who participate. The trick is to keep moving through those increments. For example, the Rutgers study suggests that because “New Jersey offers choice to its public school student to a much lesser degree than other states,” we should consider making “district participation mandatory rather than voluntary,” at least for underserved children, and wooing more districts in through financial incentives.

We’ve established the ladder. Now we need to move up the steps.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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