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Tales Out of School

by Jayne Jacova Feld
The public school track was once a straight-and-narrow line. But new initiatives mean parents have far more choices than ever before, a reality that’s transforming the business of education.

Pamela Brown, a Voorhees mom and an art educator, put in years of bake sales and walkathons and other community fundraising initiatives. She helped raise about $40,000 for two new playgrounds at Osage Elementary School, not to mention high-tech Smartboards in the classrooms.

But then it dawned on her: the real money was elsewhere. “What I found is that most corporate giving is going to charter schools; Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have made them a focus,” Brown says. In discussions with the school district administrators, she says, she realized there was also demand for such a school. “What we saw was the need for a full-day kindergarten program which is not funded by the state.”

So, the idea for Voorhees Charter School, a full-day, arts-based kindergarten program, was born. Brown put in the application last year, with hopes of eventually serving 160 kindergarten-through-third-grade students.

Brown’s application also represents a broader trend. Until very recently, most South Jersey students not enrolled in private schools simply attended whichever school was in their home district. Families often chose a house not just for its floor plan, but based on the reputation of the school system—factoring the quality of the schools into the value of the home.

In coming years, however, more South Jersey families could encounter school choices that seemed like the stuff of fiction just a few years back. Changing mindsets in both Washington and Trenton about school funding—and what it will take to improve public education and rein in costs—are fueling new and proposed legislation bringing competition to traditional public schools. Chief among these new options are charter schools, which offer choice within school districts; out-of-district enrollment programs that enable schools to court paying students from neighboring towns; and vouchers that would enable students to attend private or parochial schools using public funds.

For parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s public education, these options offer unprecedented flexibility—and affordability. But they’ve also triggered a debate among those concerned that the introduction of competition in public education could do more harm than good.

“The governor rightfully said, ‘Let’s make a change,’ and I applaud him for that,” says Sandy Student, a member of the Evesham school board. “At the same token, we have some 600 school districts—some without even schools. Consolidation might make more sense.”

Charting a new path
Charter schools have been the subject of a great deal of debate in this region. For example, on its surface, Brown’s approach seems eminently reasonable. Around 40 or 50 parents have already gotten involved with the initiative, and she notes that, when Voorhees did offer a pilot program including full-day care for kindergarten students, demand far exceeded the number of slots available.

“A full-day kindergarten program educationally is ultimately a lot more sound,” she says. Moreover, since charter schools are only funded at 90 percent of the district’s cost per pupil, the public schools get additional funding for each student that goes to a charter school. And, Brown adds, the beauty of charter schools is that they can apply for grants. “Say [a textbook company] wants to give money to a school, they can’t give directly, because it looks like pay to play,” she says. “But a charter school can do things like that: private donations, corporate donations.”

Yet, Brown’s application, one of nine in South Jersey and more than 50 statewide, was denied in January by Gov. Chris Christie, even as he approved a record-setting 23 new charter-based institutions, including schools in Gloucester Township and Willingboro. (Brown intends to resubmit her application and hopes to open in September 2012.)

After all, though charter schools have thrived in the Garden State’s urban settings, including Camden, for nearly 15 years, they first began appearing in South Jersey suburbs just two years ago. Also among the rush of new applications is Regis Academy Charter School, the application for which was submitted by Amir Khan, pastor of the Solid Rock Worship Center. He did not return multiple calls requesting comment for this story, but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the school would operate on a “‘micro society’ education model”—in which the school functions as a student-run microcosm of adult life.

New Jersey’s 73 charter schools only educate approximately 22,000 students, just 1 percent of New Jersey’s 1.37 million public school population. Yet, they can be expected to multiply swiftly. “Even in suburbia, where people are paying high taxes for quality schools, they are demanding a better quality model of schools,” says Gloria Bonilla Santiago, a Rutgers University-Camden professor who helped write New Jersey’s charter school law. “Now the experiment of charter schools has proven it can be done, and it can be done with the same amount of money.”

Still, charter schools are no panacea. A 2009 study comparing test results of New Jersey charter school students to their public school counterparts found that, while some charter schools provide an exceptional education, overall their students perform well below students in traditional schools. Approximately one-third of all charter schools in New Jersey have been shut down, either for lack of funds or for academic failure.

Crossing the line
According to the school choice bill signed into law in September, students who choose to leave their school districts may attend any participating public school—and their local districts will even be required to pick up the cost of transportation, if it’s within 20 miles. Some districts view the program as a way to make up revenue lost to last year’s round of crushing education cuts, since they’ll receive each added student’s state aid payment—$13,835 on average. A hand­ful of South Jersey schools, including those in Medford Lakes and Pitman, are among the 74 New Jersey districts taking advantage of the plan to fill empty classroom seats and bring in additional funding.

Yet, several top-performing South Jersey districts have opted out of the program, at least for now.

In Evesham, the issue of public-school choice became the subject of heated debate this fall when the board of education held a community meeting. Some 250 people fill­ed an auditorium to hear Superintendent John Scavelli Jr.’s proposal to take in 63 kindergarten and first-grade students, while being reimbursed by the state $9,227 per child. The plan would have brought more than $580,000 into a district still smarting from layoffs and budget cuts.

Yet, the Evesham school board rejected the proposal. Suzanne Epstein, a mother of two, says she and other parents felt there were just too many unanswered questions as to the impact of taking in children from surrounding districts. For one, there were no assurances that paying students would not require more special education services, which cost far more than the district would receive per child.

In Haddonfield, where an extensive tui­tion-based program has been in use for the past 25 years, officials also considered the public-school choice option, but ultimately rejected it, says Board of Education President Steven Weinstein.

Currently, Haddonfield takes in 22 tuition students from surrounding municipalities. Tuitions range from $11,250 to attend high school to $8,500 for elementary school enrollment. “We believe that our schools provide a private school education—small class size, individual attention, top academic performance and great extracurricular opportunities—at a public school price,” Weinstein says.

The state program, in the end, might have impinged on that. Among concerns, he says, the district currently has the ability to screen potential tuition students to ensure they would succeed in Haddonfield schools. School choice plans don’t allow for such controls.

Vouching for change
The third program that could open up school choice would be a voucher program. Supporters of vouchers, which are government-issued certificates that parents can apply toward private-school tuition, view them as an opportunity for low-income parents to remove their children from failing schools. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ray Lesniak and Republican Sen. Tom Kean Jr. would establish a scholarship fund for low-income students in such districts.

Gov. Christie is a fan of the program; however, vouchers’ opponents are also powerful, including the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), representing the bulk of New Jersey’s teachers.

NJEA spokes­man Steve Baker argues it’s a mistake to subsidize private schools when public schools are dealing with massive cuts. “New Jersey residents support public schools and overwhelmingly oppose voucher programs,” he says. “They instinctively know we shouldn’t use public money to support private and parochial schools.”

The converse argument is that independent religious schools save public districts some $50 billion a year in tax money, according to a study by the Council for American Private Education. “That’s because we educate kids at a lower fee-per-person than public schools,” says Irene McHenry, president of the Council’s board.

Still, the movement for school choice shows no signs of abating, as evidenced by the laws already being enacted. In 10 years, choosing a secondary school could be nearly as complicated as selecting a university. Will the resulting education be worse or better? Time will tell.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 11 (February, 2011).
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