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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as N.J. Debate Focuses on Terms of Choice Plan

N.J. Debate Focuses on Terms of Choice Plan

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New Jersey lawmakers and Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz are working out the finer points of a proposal that would allow students to attend schools outside their home districts, tuition-free, as early as next September.

If passed, the measure would end, at least temporarily, a struggle between the GOP-led legislative and executive branches over interdistrict choice. Lawmakers were scheduled to debate the merits of the proposal at a hearing of the joint committee on public schools sometime this week. The measure could face a vote in the full legislature early next year.

Proponents of the choice plan, including Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, say the measure would help middle- and low-income families who can't afford to move or send their children to private schools when they are dissatisfied with their local schools. In a state with roughly 600 districts, supporters also contend that the proposal would provide greater flexibility to working parents.

But some lawmakers counter that school officials are already juggling a handful of complex reform measures, and that school choice would just put one more ball in the air. Urban districts, for example, are working to implement whole-school reform in elementary schools and plotting how to use forthcoming school construction dollars from the state, while districts across New Jersey are dealing with a growing number of charter schools.

State leaders need to get back to focusing on improving educational quality in all districts, rather than taking on another "experimental" program, said Assemblyman Gerald J. Luongo, a Republican on the education committee in the General Assembly, the lower chamber in New Jersey's legislature.

"Why don't we just make all public schools number one and make that the goal?" Mr. Luongo said. "The message that we're sending is that our schools are so inferior in some areas that we better just abandon them."

Targeting Incentives

Leo F. Klagholz

Mr. Klagholz first introduced a public-school-choice proposal to state school board members last February. The commissioner said that the state department of education could implement a choice program without legislative authorization, thanks to one line in New Jersey's 1996 school funding law. The line discusses enrollment related to "a voluntary program of interdistrict public school choice approved by the commissioner."

The legislature passed a resolution in September designed to block Mr. Klagholz's plan. The lawmakers stated that they never meant to create a statewide choice plan through the funding law.

"The administration's proposal was unlimited, very broad-based," Mr. Luongo said. "[Mr. Klagholz] was presuming to have this power that allowed him to forge ahead with the plan. That's what brought the legislature to its feet."

Faced with legislative resistance, the schools chief scaled back the scope of his original proposal, calling it a pilot project that would designate one district in each of the state's 21 counties to accept out-of-district students.

Sen. Robert J. Martin

In addition to limiting the number of districts that could participate in the pilot, the compromise plan that lawmakers are now considering would cap the number of students any one district could lose at 2 percent of its enrollment per grade level, said Sen. Robert J. Martin, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee. Republicans hold a majority in both legislative chambers.

Legislators also pushed to include measures that would provide incentives for districts to receive out-of-district students, as well as compensation for districts that lose students.

Various education groups, including the state affiliate of the National Education Association and the state school boards' association, say they would support a proposal only if it stated that both the sending and receiving districts would have to agree to any student transfer, something the current proposal does not guarantee.

"Programs just work better when both sides enter into them voluntarily," said Lynn Maher, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, the NEA affiliate. "We'd like this to be considered an experiment, and it is. But it's not just what you call it, it's how you set it up."

But Mr. Klagholz contends that giving districts the ability to stop student transfers would not serve the best interest of families. "The purpose of choice is to give parents the decision," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 20

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