As New Jersey Families Embrace School Choice, Costs Grow

New Jersey’s school choice program is growing quickly, and state officials are worried about rising costs. For the first time, the Christie administration is planning to order spending caps and limits on pupil transfers due to booming enrollment and costs.

The new wave of applications is due next week, and the state has added another 27 districts that will be permitted to accept students from other communities next year bringing the total to 136 districts overall, or roughly a quarter of all districts statewide. The school choice program has become very expensive and the state is trying to rein in enrollment – or at least the enrollment it will pay for, writes John Mooney at NJSpotlight.

In 2013, nearly 5,000 students were taking advantage of the program, a huge expansion from the pilot program that existed in the state for much of the last decade. The number of students attending school in other districts is sure to grow with student applications to attend choice districts next year due on December 2nd.

The school districts were paid by the state upfront for the per-pupil costs for students enrolled in the program, which came to more than $10,000 for each child this year — close to $50 million in the state budget this year.

The state Department of Education said in a memo sent to choice districts in October that next year’s state budget would likely see only a 5% increase in choice aid, limiting how many students existing choice districts might add and cutting back on new choice districts’ planned enrollments as well. The Department has met with representatives of choice districts around the state to explain how the program will operate, and last week posted the presentation.

“Without a doubt, it is an immensely popular program, and everyone would love to see it grow as it has been growing,” said Michael Yaple, spokesman for the state education department. “But we can’t write a blank check.”

“The cost is now over $49 million, and the goal is to allow as many new districts in as we can, while still allowing some growth in existing programs,” Yaple continued. “The growth needs to be managed, so that this can be sustainable.”

The rules also restricted programs in their first year to enrolling just one-quarter of the number of students they were approved for.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), the chief sponsor of the law expanding the program three years ago, called the cap “ill-advised and short-sighted,” and urged state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to reconsider.

“The decision of the DOE to cap the program by imposing a 5 percent growth limit is very troublesome to me, and I am disappointed by the decision,” Jasey said. “It circumvents the intent of the Legislature to expand the program,” she said. “Even more troubling, it thwarts the ability of interested families to follow through on their decision as to how to best meet their children’s needs in a public school setting.”