Published Online: January 15, 1997

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Surprise! N.J. Bill Includes Interdistrict Choice Provision

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Tucked inside New Jersey's new 74-page school funding law is a small item that has caused big problems for state education officials.

Apparently overlooked during the seven months of haggling over the bill, the clause gives state Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz the go-ahead to authorize a tuition-free program of interdistrict school choice.

No such program exists in the state.

When news accounts brought the little-noticed sentence to light late last month, Republican lawmakers who had been intimately involved in the bill's passage pleaded ignorance. Educators and interest groups expressed alarm.

And Democratic lawmakers and newspaper editorials promptly blasted the administration of GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for pulling a fast one.

No Surprise Intended

But the governor and the commissioner professed surprise that anyone should be so shocked. They say the paragraph was part of the legislation since it was first introduced last May.

And while acknowledging that the clause received little attention, they said it had occasionally come up during the lengthy legislative deliberations.

"I don't know how you supposedly slip this kind of thing in," Mr. Klagholz said with a laugh last week. "The ink is just as dark there as in the rest of the bill."

Tacked on to the definition of the term "resident enrollment," the paragraph says simply that school districts may include in their head counts any students enrolled in their schools "as part of a voluntary program of interdistrict public school choice approved by the commissioner."

Program To Be 'Modest'

Mr. Klagholz said his department intends to propose "a modest, controlled effort" allowing districts to accept some students from outside their boundaries in exchange for state aid. He said it should be ready for the 1998-99 budget cycle.

Currently, some 1,000 students attend schools outside their own districts, Mr. Klagholz said.

Most pay tuition, and the districts they attend are not allowed to count them for purposes of collecting state aid. The rest attend thanks to a benefit some districts offer that allows teachers to enroll their children in the districts where they work.

Since 1992, the state has provided money for those employees' children, the commissioner said.

That concept will be extended to students in the yet-to-be-crafted choice program under the new law.

While Mr. Klagholz staunchly denied that the administration had sought to slip anything past the legislature, he did not seek to downplay the paragraph's importance.

"It is still a significant development from a policy perspective," he said. "The intent was to make it voluntary and therefore nonthreatening.

"Little did I know."

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