School Choice program eyes expansion

TRENTON – The state Education Department has proposed changes to the popular Interdistrict School Choice Program, including allowing more public schools to participate.

It would also accept “non-public school students.” Such students, according to the proposal, could “enroll in choice schools if the choice school district chooses to admit the student and seats are available after all eligible public school students have been admitted.”

To enable more students in general to participate, the DOE “proposes an amendment to delete the restriction on the number of choice school districts.” Districts that want to participate can simply apply to the DOE for consideration.

The rule proposal by DOE was included in the Aug. 20 edition of the state register.

Sending districts would still be responsible for transportation of students to the receiving schools.  The districts would receive transportation aid. They could either continue providing the transportation or provide payment of nearly $900 to the parent to accommodate their child’s transportation needs. 

Also, according to the rule proposal, the education commissioner would have the ability to waive deadlines for individual choice student applicants for good cause.

Special consideration would be given to choice school applicants who have siblings attending those schools already, the proposal states.

The program allows students to attend a school outside the district in which they live if the selected school participates.

The Interdistrict School Choice program has expanded greatly as more and more districts have participated over the years. State education officials said the program is crucial to providing more opportunities for students seeking a quality education.

“The choice program is necessary to increase options and flexibility for parents and students in selecting a school that will best meet the needs of each student, thereby improving education opportunities for New Jersey citizens. The choice program has increased the degree to which the education system is responsive to parents and students,” the department’s proposal states.

In the 2000-01 school year, the first time it was piloted, the Interdistrict School Choice Program had 96 students in 10 districts participating. By the 2011-12 school year, a total of 71 school districts were participating, benefitting some 2,100 students. 

With the anticipated expansion, the DOE forecasts some 3,500 students participating in the school choice program in the 2012-13 school year.

State education officials said the program has provided many of the benefits students and their parents have sought, including smaller class sizes, more extracurricular activities, and access to certain subjects that perhaps aren’t available in their hometown schools.

It was previously only open to students between grades kindergarten and ninth grade. But the new proposals call for expanding it from preschool through 12. 

“To align the rules with the revised statute passed in 2010, the choice program regulations now include students in preschool and grades 10 and 11.”

Officials with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, reviewed the proposal and did not submit testimony or comments regarding the changes, spokesman Steve Baker said. 

“On the first round, we didn’t see anything (in the proposal) that we object to,” he said.

School Choice program eyes expansion