A Very Bad Week for NJ’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program

It’s been a bad week for NJ’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, a highly-acclaimed program that allows students to attend schools outside district boundaries. Schools with extra seats, and the support of their administrators and school boards apply to the DOE to host out-of-district students. The State kicks in $10,000 per pupil so that home districts are spared any fiscal burdens. Democrats, Republicans, NJEA, and NJ School Boards Association applaud newfound opportunities for families and students.  Currently about 6,000 students avail themselves of these opportunities in 136 choice districts.

What could be bad? Ask the DOE and Assemblyman John Burzichelli.

First, the DOE. Last year choice schools were shocked to discover that the DOE was unilaterally capping available seats below statutory levels. This year the application for new choice districts has been, well, delayed.

Here’s the DOE regulation:

4. a. A proposed choice district shall submit an application to the commissioner no later than April 30 in the year prior to the school year in which the choice program will be implemented…

As of today, two weeks before the deadline,  the DOE has declined to provide the application.  A representative from the Interdistrict Public School Choice Association sent an email to Jessani Gordon, head of the DOE’s Interdistrict Choice Program Office, asking about the whereabouts of the application and whether the DOE would extend the deadline so that districts have at least 30 days to file.

Here’s the response:

We will add you to the email list to receive notification when the choice district application has been posted. No decisions have been made at this time to change the application deadline.
Regards,
Choice Program

Part two of the very bad week: on Tuesday Assemblyman John Burzichelli announced a bill that would ban students in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program from  participating in sports programs in their new schools. He added in an interview that he’d like to see this prohibition expanded to all extra-curricular activities, including music, art, and theater.

Burzichelli claims that the bill would target schools from “recruiting” athletes through the choice program.  From the Press of Atlantic City: “School officials said the new cap on choice enrollment has already made it more difficult to get in, and since all students are chosen through a lottery, there is no special advantage for athletes.”

What’s up with that? The word on the street is that the Assemblyman is hoisting a boatload of sour grapes because  — wait for it – his hometown of Paulsboro (Gloucester County) lost a wrestling match to Bound Brook, a choice district with 37 seats available to out-of-district students.

Here are a few reactions:

Bob Rossi, Athletics Director at Hunterdon Central, which is a choice school, said he believes Burzichelli’s legislation may not be the appropriate response to what he believes are isolated incidents of scholastic sports teams benefitting from school choice.

“Now you are going to hurt all these kids,” Rossi said. “That, to me, makes no sense.”

Valarie Smith of the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association explained that

 [H]igh school is a holistic, all-encompassing experience, and singling out athletes is discriminatory and unfair. These people are more concerned about their sports programs than they are about giving these students choice.

Assemblyman Burzichelli has an interesting past with high school athletics. Back in 2006, according to PolitickerNJ,  he accused the NJ Interscholastic Athletics Associations, which oversees NJ school sports programs, of “bloated salaries, wasteful spending practices, and travel excursions.” In 2011 the Star Ledger reported that the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, through the Open Public Records Act, obtained emails that showed that Burzichelli was “plotting a state takeover” of NJSIAA by the New Jersey School Boards Association. NJSIAA compiled a report based on the emails that  the State Commission of Investigation “was used by Assemblyman Burzichelli to promote his agenda to eliminate the NJSIAA.”

Bottom line: the DOE needs to release the application for new choice districts so that more kids will have academic opportunities currently walled off for them by their ZIP codes. Of course, the DOE also needs to extend the application deadline so that districts can actually apply and so that this exercise looks less like a charade.

Finally, legislators should take note that Burzichelli’s bill has nothing to do with kids and everything to do with old grudges and provincial allegiances more suited to middle school locker rooms than the the Statehouse.

What do you think?

8 Comments

  1. Ms Smith/Ms Waters,

    Interdistrict Choice doesn't take money from _anyone_? Since there is neither a federal reimbursement nor a reimbursement from a private foundation nor a reimbursement from sending districts, the money comes out of the state's overall budget. That's money that could either be put to another use or used to lower taxes.

    I'm not sure what you were saying about Adjustment Aid, but if you are saying that it should not exist then I agree with you. Adjustment Aid funnels money to districts that have lost student population and/or become wealthier while districts that have gained student population and/or become poorer have almost no equivalent aid stream.

    If you are referring to the supposed practice of a state offsetting Choice Aid by making reductions to Adjustment AId this just isn't happening. I've gone over the multiyear aid streams for Adjustment Aid and Choice Aid and not found many (or any) examples of a clear cut in Adjustment AId equal to the increase in Choice Aid. If you look up Hoboken you'll see simultaneous increases in Choice Aid and Adjustment Aid. For 2014-15 all the aid streams except Choice Aid and Additional Choice Aid were frozen at 2013-14 levels anyway, so there is obviously no Adjustment Aid reduction.

    However, what you are employing by bringing up Adjustment Aid is a rhetorical trick. When someone says X is bad and you say Y is worse, that doesn't mean that the problems with X go away.

    Also, bringing up Adjustment Aid weakens your argument. The award of Adjustment Aid is opaque, but it usually goes to districts that have lost student population (or become wealthier). Districts that have lost student population are districts that can easily participate in Interdistrict Choice. Thus Interdistrict Choice allows these districts with falling student populations (whose financial needs are lower than districts that have gained population) to tap into yet another revenue stream.

    A third of Choice districts also get Adjustment AId, which is a higher proportion than non-Choice districts.

    Also, in what should be a scandal, Choice districts that lose Choice student population get “Additional Adjustment Aid.”

    You have also never defended why you think that the $10,500 average payment is an appropriate amount. Surely you know that districts have fixed costs which are unaffected by the addition of even a few dozen Choice students and thus the marginal costs of another student are nowhere near the amount the state pays for Choice students.

    What Interdistrict Choice has created is a tier of aid-privileged districts. While over 150 districts in NJ get less than 60% of their SFRA Aid Interdistrict Choice allows districts to get many times what their aid should be. This inequity is wrong and should be scrutinized.

  2. My comment section is acting wonky. Here's a comment from Valarie Smith from the Interdistrict Public School Choice Association:

    Dear JSB79 – I've seen your similar posts several times on various articles reporting on Interdistrict Choice.

    Most certainly, you have very strong interest in the subject.

    The Interdistrict Choice Program does not take funds away from anyone. The reality is that the funding system needs to be fixed, as the current funding system, under the adjustment aid category, makes for a payment system of “lost students,” It is the funding system that is adding additional dollars–not the choice program.

    As for athletics, I can assure you that Bound Brook's wrestling team was not built on the back of the Interdistrict Choice Program. There are many incorrect statements in the article that you cite. And Paulsboro, which is also a choice district, held that Group 1 championship for 10 straight years.

  3. Footnote to History: Burzichelli's original Jihad against the (well-deserving) NJSIAA allegedly arose over the failure of that body to provide him comp passes for a high-school athletic tournament.

    Good to see he's focused upon what's really important here, too.

  4. You shouldn't automatically dismiss the problem of Choice districts building superteams.

    Bound Brook just built the most dominant wrestling team in recent NJ history.

    “With 11 wrestlers in the starting lineup Sunday who either transferred to Bound Brook or are enrolled in the high school while living out of district, as Christie's law permits, the Crusaders strung together perhaps the most dominant run in state tournament history, outscoring four playoff opponents by a combined 237-31 margin.”

    http://www.mycentraljersey.com/article/20140216/NJSPORTS0122/302160044/Bound-Brook-s-success-shines-light-New-Jersey-s-school-choice-program

    Maybe John Burzichelli's bill isn't the best response, but it is a response to a potential problem that has appeared and is likely to appear more often in the future.

  5. Why you never acknowledge is that the money for Interdistrict Choice comes out of money for Equalization Aid, Special Education Aid, Transportation Aid etc. When 80% of NJ districts get less money than they got before the recession (and most of the districts that get more are Choice districts) how can we continue to funnel all this money into a program which benefits so few students at the expense of the many?

    You like to use examples of kids in low-performing districts benefiting from this program, but then why are so many of the participants from places like Cape May and Hunterdon counties? Also, shouldn't there be any consideration of the impact on sending districts of losing their better students?

    The number of students who participate in Interdistrict Choice is 4,682. It's nowhere near 6,000.

    The cost in Choice Aid per student for 2014-15 is $10,500 than $10,000. $49 million / 4682 = ~$10,500. However, if you count increased Transportation Aid and administrative expenses the costs are closer to $11,000 per student.

    You also have to factor in Additional Adjustment Aid which goes to Choice districts that lose Choice students. This brings the total cost for a very tiny program even higher.

    However, there is no way to calculate the real cost per student since Choice districts are paid on the raw number of Choice students they accept, not their change in enrollment. If a Choice districts receives 20 students and has 10 of its own students go to other Choice districts it's paid for 20 students, even though it's net change in enrollment is half of that.

    Finally, Interdistrict Choice kids are half as likely to have special needs as the gen ed population. The marginal cost of educating additional kids for Choice districts is not even close to $10,000-11,000 per student. This program is a gold mine for receiving districts, but the costs are paid by districts statewide.

    Interdistrict Choice would be a profoundly badly designed program even if the state weren't in a fiscal mess. Since we are in a fiscal mess and the state can barely sustain its existing K-12 spending I think this program's growth has to be stopped until reforms are made.

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