With a governor-elect who has vowed to support more educational options, attention has turned toward a little-known program that lets families send their children to schools outside their home district.
Known as the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, it started in 2000 as a five-year pilot. The state Board of Education readopted the program's regulations Wednesday to keep it operating in its current form. It is in 15 districts statewide, including five in South Jersey, and last school year served a little more than 900 students.
Those numbers could grow substantially if the Legislature embraces a proposal to expand the program and make it permanent.
"This program has proven to be successful," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), cosponsor of the Senate version of the bill, along with Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union). Their bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee last month and has moved to the budget committee. An Assembly version is pending.
But even if the bill doesn't pass before the end of the lame-duck legislative session in January, Turner said she believes it will have a good shot when Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie takes office.
Christie supports interdistrict choice as long as the receiving district is a willing participant, he said.
"It was one of the areas of school choice that I endorsed during the campaign," Christie said. "I believe that we should strengthen that, along with a lot of other areas of school choice, like charter schools and vouchers."
In its nine years, the interdistrict program has received good reviews from the districts and families who have taken part, said Rochelle Hendricks, state assistant education commissioner for district and school improvement.
"I think it has tremendous potential as a reasonable choice option for families," Hendricks said.
One Camden mother who has sent two daughters to an elementary school in Brooklawn couldn't say enough about the program.
"I absolutely love it," said Jovana Gibson. Her 12-year-old daughter, Justice, is a high-achieving sixth grader at the Alice Costello School in Brooklawn.
Her older daughter, Jemai, 18, is a freshman at Rutgers-Camden and a graduate of Camden's Creative Arts High School. Gibson sent her to Brooklawn in the fifth grade after reading a news article about the program. Jemai had attended a Camden public school and, briefly, a charter school and earned A's and B's. That changed when she got to Brooklawn.
"She wasn't an A-B student. She was a C-D student," Gibson said. She and her daughter were devastated, but the Brooklawn staff stepped up.
"They worked with her," Gibson said. "They got her up to par."
Other South Jersey districts that take choice students are Folsom in Atlantic County, Washington Township in Burlington County, and Lower Township in Cape May County. South Harrison Township in Gloucester County is in the program but has no choice students this year.
Under the proposed legislation, the previous limit of one choice district per county would be eliminated. As with the current program, sending districts could limit the number of students allowed to transfer out.
The state provides additional aid to choice districts. Under the new legislation, sending districts would provide transportation and be eligible for aid. As is now the case, choice students would be selected by lottery if the number of out-of-district applicants exceeded the available number of slots.
New Jersey is one of 42 states that have an interdistrict-choice program, according to research by Education Sector, an education-policy think tank.
Turner said an expanded school-choice program could help New Jersey make its case to win additional federal aid under the new Race to the Top stimulus plan. For that reason, she'd like to see the bill pass as soon as possible so the state could include it in the federal application due next month.
Not everyone is convinced the program should expand. The influential New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and other school personnel, has expressed concern about the percentage of students who will opt for choice schools and the effect that might have on their home districts.
"This is all about providing opportunity," said NJEA spokesman Stephen Wollmer, "but you have to ensure you're very careful you don't deny opportunity to the kids who stay behind."
Legislative staffers haven't been able to determine the financial impact of expanding the program, but cosponsor Turner said modifications could be made if cost became an issue.
Those in favor of expanding the program include the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
Excellent Education for Everyone, a nonprofit that supports education alternatives, sees the program as an expedient way of increasing school choice, deputy director Derrell Bradford said.
Not surprisingly, parents are among the program's biggest backers.
Michelle Alkins of Gloucester City sends daughter Mikayla, 10, and son Wyatt, 7, to Brooklawn, where she is a substitute teacher. She prefers the curriculum and the atmosphere at the Brooklawn school to those in her home district. She hopes the program expands.
"It would be a great thing for parents to be able to choose where they send their children," she said.
Choice district officials say their schools have benefited through increased diversity and additional funds, which have enabled new programs and, in some cases, held the line on tax increases. The program also has been helpful to districts with declining enrollment.
"A lot of districts will be interested, I suspect, because of the desire to become more diverse and because of the financial incentives," Brooklawn Superintendent John Kellmayer said.
Brooklawn hasn't had a tax increase since 2001 and is currently at the minimum tax levy. Kellmayer said the funds from the choice students - about a quarter of the school population - helped make that possible.
In North Jersey, the choice program helped the Englewood district voluntarily desegregate its high school population and create a college-preparatory magnet school, according to Richard Segall, district superintendent.
The program was the Folsom district's savior in Atlantic County.
"Eight years ago, we were down to a couple hundred kids, and we were looking at closing our school," Superintendent Jean Rishel said.
Nearly 40 percent of its student body is from outside the district, with the majority coming from Winslow.
The children get along and have cross-district friendships, Rishel said.
"Once our students come here, we don't think of them as choice students. They're Folsom students," she said.
About four years ago, the one-school district underwent a major improvement program that included redoing the library, adding technology and other programs, and hiring staff. Choice funding helped support the added staff.
Rishel would like to see the program expand, but she voiced one caution.
"My only concern," she said, "is that the state really look at the districts that apply and see that they're not just interested in the additional funds."