A Nifty Fix for the New Jersey Segregation Lawsuit?

Last week I wrote about a lawsuit currently before Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson which charges that New Jersey’s public schools are unconstitutionally segregated due to our policy of assigning students to districts where their families can afford the rent or mortgage. The endgame pressed by the plaintiffs in the suit —New Jersey Coalition for Diverse & Inclusive Schools, the Latino Action Network, and NAACP —mirrors that of anti-choice zealots: To halt the expansion of charter schools which, they falsely claim, exacerbates segregation. (Note: An independent study found that when data is uncoupled from political agendas, the impact of charter schools on school segregation in New Jersey “is statistically indistinguishable from zero.“)

Numerous parties have weighed in. For example, the NJ Charter School Association filed a motion to intervene (see here), which was granted by Judge Jacobson, and, as NJ Spotlight reported earlier this week, the association that represents the state’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP) has filed an amicus brief. The association’s lawyer is none other than David Hespe, former Education Commissioner, and his argument offers a plausible solution to the quandary before Judge Jacobson.

Although, once again, it all comes down to money.

I haven’t written about the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program in a long time. This program, which allows schools with empty seats to enroll students outside of district boundaries, has endured a kind of suspended animation, frozen at about 5,000 students in 124 schools. Why? Because New Jersey’s school funding formula makes this program inordinately expensive for the State. So, starting under Christie and continuing under Murphy, we halted all expansion.

Why is such a sensible program so expensive? 

The amicus brief explains  that the sending district — the district where the student lives —continues to receive the full amount of state aid as if the student were still enrolled.  That double payment was supposed to be eliminated (just like Adjustment Aid) but that hasn’t happened yet. Stateaidguy comments on the Spotlight piece, “if a district sends 20 kids out via Interdistrict Choice to other districts and receives 20 kids, it is paid for +20 kids, even though the change in enrollment is 0.” In addition, too many of those seats are taken by teachers who live in other districts but want their kids to go to the district in which they are employed and the state overpays per pupil, as much as $16K in districts like Hoboken and Deal, which stateaidguy calls “a huge overpayment.”

(Thought experiment: The highly-regarded IPSCP enrolls kids in districts not their own, the state pays money, and some of the IPSCP schools skim off top-performing kids. So why does NJEA [and its lackeys, Gov. Murphy and Comm. Repollet]] have no problem with IPSCP but demand [as the NJEA-friendly lawsuit does] the closure of non-skimming charter schools? Because the teachers are unionized in all IPSCP programs. Market share, baby, market share.)

Yet these funding formula problems can be fixed, unlike the sideshow orchestrated by the plaintiffs. IPSCP’s amicus brief notes,

Forced regionalization or consolidation of districts or the unilateral modification of attendance zones will be faced with political, legal, educational, public relations and operational challenges at the State and local level.

But if the State can rewrite the funding formula for the IPSCP program by phasing out the sending district aid and if the program is reconfigured to focus on increasing diversity (which the program already does) and current caps are lifted, then Judge Jacobson may have in hand an elegant solution. 

Of course, almost any change generates problems. One of the choice schools (here’s the list),  Springfield’s Dayton Collegiate Academy, only accepts “identified high school gifted students.”  In my county of Mercer, which includes Trenton, there is only one choice school, Hopewell Valley High School, and there are currently 0 seats available. At least one county has no choice districts. Stateaidguy notes, “most high-quality suburban districts do not have spare capacity.

Yet if the State can scale up the Interdistrict program by fixing the funding formula we can take baby steps towards breaking down the walls that keep low-income, disproportionately black and brown children out of high-performing schools. And don’t eschew incremental progress: In a state so driven by local control, there is no other plausible remedy other than one little step at a time.

What do you think?

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