New Jersey Enacts Open Enrollment Public School Choice Option

Published October 13, 2010

A new state law allows New Jersey parents unsatisfied with the quality of their local school to enroll their children in a public school outside the borders of their home district. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed the bill in September, and he says he plans to seek additional educational options for Garden State parents and children

The new open enrollment policy is modest in scope and makes permanent an existing interdistrict public school choice pilot program. The law allows up to 10 percent of a district’s students to attend any other public school in the state where enrollment is not at capacity.

The goal of the law, sponsored by Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex), Joan Voss (D-Bergen), and Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester), is to give parents leeway in choosing an out-of-boundary public school if they’re dissatisfied with their locally assigned public school. Schools that want to participate in the new plan have to apply to the state commissioner of education and provide details about school services available to students.

Districts Pay for Transport
Students’ assigned school districts will have to pay for transportation to receiving districts between 2.5 miles and twenty miles away from their home districts.

Families wishing to enroll a child in an out of boundary school must apply to the district in which they want to enroll their children, and they will be placed in a lottery if applications exceed available space.

‘Nightmarish to Union Leadership’
While limited, the additional school choice options are a step in the right direction for New Jersey families, says Derrell Bradford, executive direction of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) in New Jersey.

“The previous administration believed that children belonged to their school districts, and enforcing that monopolistic relationship provided predictability for the adults; teachers, supervisors, janitors—all the folks who live off of the system,” Bradford said.

“You can imagine the thought of a bunch of terrible teachers showing up to an empty school as nightmarish to union leadership. The bar for reform here was low because, well, reform was a four-letter word for a very long time,” he explained.

Vouchers Not Welcome
Although the New Jersey Education Association supported the open enrollment measure, the union remains strongly opposed to a school choice measure under consideration that would provide opportunity scholarships to low-income children to attend a private school of their choice.

“It’s my understanding that the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association supported this bill precisely because it does keep children in the public school system and does not allow private school options,” said Jeff Reed, state program and government relations director for the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.

“The key difference between this bill and the Opportunity Scholarship bill is the menu of schools from which New Jersey families can choose,” Reed noted. “Opportunity Scholarships would allow children from cash-strapped families to choose an education outside the public school system, namely private schools. If the goal is to meet children’s unique educational needs, the mode of delivery—public, private, virtual, home-schooling—shouldn’t matter.”

‘Considerably Limited and Regulated’
Pam Benigno, Education Policy Center Director for the Independence Institute in Colorado, noted further steps could be taken to strengthen the program.

“The New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act is a considerably limited and regulated open enrollment program. It is no wonder that the New Jersey Education Association supported the bill,” she said.

“Only districts that choose to apply to the state commissioner of education to become a choice district will participate,” Benigno explained. In addition, “sending districts can put a cap on the number of students who leave their district to enroll into a choice district.” 

Benigno contrasted New Jersey’s new law with Colorado’s, which lawmakers passed in 1994.

“Colorado requires all school districts to participate in both intra- and inter-district open enrollment. Furthermore, sending districts have no control over the number of students who leave their district to open-enroll into other districts,” she said.

Although the Rocky Mountain State’s system is “far from perfect,” Benigno says at least it “allows for more students to be served in schools their families choose and creates a more competitive environment among schools.”

“New Jersey has taken a positive baby step toward offering public school choice,” Benigno said. “The next step should be mandating all districts to offer intra- and inter-district choice.”

‘Low-Hanging Fruit’
Despite the new law’s shortcomings, New Jersey’s public school choice program provides more opportunities for students currently underserved by their assigned public schools, says Bradford.

“Anything that expands choices and educational opportunities for families is a good thing,” he said. “Though this is low-hanging fruit on the school choice tree, making the program permanent was long overdue.”

Said Reed: “Christie is moving the ball forward on school choice and a host of other supposedly ‘controversial’ issues simply by communicating to the public.

“Those wishing to be school choice leaders should look to the commonsense strategies employed by people like Gov. Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: Communicate, educate, and then go do it,” Reed concluded. 

Lindsey M. Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.