Friday, August 17, 2012

The Reformy Double Bind

Jersey Jazzman has a great piece today about the fact that the NJDOE has yet to release the names of the schools participating in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program for the 2012-2013 school year.

In his post he points out a potential pitfall with the program:
"I am concerned, however, that IPSC creates the same trap that charter schools do: the kids who will use it are going to be the kids with fewer special needs, fewer language issues, and aren't as poor as the kids staying in their home districts. So the money follows the children who are the least expensive to educate, leaving the home district to educate the rest of the kids with fewer resources."
Highland Park almost applied to be an IPSC school as a concession to the founders of Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter School.  Early negotiations between the lead founder of the charter and the community, before it was revealed that the application was filled with misrepresentations, resulted in a list of things the founders wanted to see in the Highland Park Schools (even though not a single one of them is a public school parent...).  The deal was if these ideas were implemented, the founders would not reapply for their charter.  

The Highland Park school board was asked to teach Hebrew, serve Kosher lunches and become a choice district.  The founders of the charter wanted Highland Park to become a choice district so that parents in Edison, who wanted their kids to learn Hebrew but didn't want to pay for private schools, could receive this perk from the Highland Park public schools.   

The district agreed to these conditions, hoping to get out from under the threat of the charter application, but the founders reapplied anyway.  As a result of those early negotiations, we now teach Hebrew in the high school and serve Kosher lunches, but since the founders did not hold to their agreement not to reapply, after much debate, the Highland Park school board eventually voted not to become a choice district.

If our district had gone ahead with IPSC it most certainly would not have been to teach the underserved segments of our neighboring communities.  Instead, we were asked to join the program to use our public schools to cater to parents who want their children to learn a specific language that more typically is taught in a private school setting.  

Perhaps the most insidious part was that not only was our school board asked to do this to avoid the threat of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from of our budget to an unwanted charter, the IPSC idea was then seen by some as a potential revenus stream!  There was discussion on the board that if the charter was going to be approved anyway perhaps IPSC would bring much needed funds back into the district.  

I spoke at many board meetings and implored them NOT to use this program as a money making venture to lure students from neighboring districts, ostensibly creating competition between Highland Park and our neighboring districts.  

The proverbial icing on the cake of the situation was that the districts we would be luring students from to create this revenue stream were also sending districts for Tikun Olam (and also the Great Brunswick Charter School).  So while we were working hand in hand with Edison and New Brunswick to stop the charter, at the same time we were asked to take students and funds from the very same districts to stop the charter.

And we almost did it.

Our board was being forced to simultaneously collaborate and compete with neighboring districts, all in vain attempts to save our district from hemorrhaging funds to unwanted, unneeded reforms being pushed by Commissioner Cerf and Governor Christie.  

Welcome to the reformy double bind.

1 comment:

  1. You are correct to worry about Interdistrict Choice.

    Despite overall K-12 aid being flat for the last several years, this programs costs have escalated dramatically.

    Interdistrict Choice spending has grown from $9.8 million in 2010-11, to $18 million in 2011-12, to $33 million in 2012-13, to $49 million in 2013-14. From 2011-12 to 2013-14 total K-12 education aid only increased by 3% but Choice Aid has nearly tripled. For 2012-13 to 2013-14 the state only increased K-12 aid by $96 million, most of which went to the Abbotts. Choice Aid increased by $16 million.

    The money for Interdistrict Choice doesn't come from heaven. It comes out of other districts' state aid. It comes out of the Equalization Aid that low-resource districts get and the Security Aid and Special Education Aid that all districts get. 270 NJ districts are Below Adequacy and we are nowhere near fully funding SFRA, so the Choice Aid diversion is significant.

    For 2014-15 the Christie Administration has done the responsible thing and capped enrollment growth at 5%. Now Interdistrict Choice advocates are calling for that cap to be lifted and unlimited, exponential growth to resume.

    Choice advocates say that the increase in participation itself indicates success, but this is a bogus argument: if NJ had a voucher system it would undoubtedly have a lot of participation too, but that doesn't automatically mean it would be good. Choice Advocates also don't acknowledge that their money is taken away from other school districts.

    The average Choice Aid payment for 2013-14 is $10,480 per student. The marginal cost of another student to a district was nowhere near that. When Deal had a tuition program it charged $4800. Now that Deal is a Choice district it gets $14000+ per student.

    What's the most galling is that Choice districts, by virtue of having empty seats to fill, are not ones that have enrollment growth to accommodate. Most districts that have seen population growth get no extra help at all and many have had aid reductions.

    That's just not affordable.