Difficult ’Choice’: Ocean City Schools Cling to Dying Program

first_imgOcean City High SchoolWith the state paying the Ocean City School District about $14,000 apiece to educate what turned out to be 194 out-of-district students, the choice was easy.Ocean City dove into the new Interdistrict School Choice Program as a pilot district in 2010 and by this year reached $2.7 million in annual tuition payments from the state. The program allows students from other school districts to apply to attend Ocean City schools with the full cost picked up by the state.At the time, the district called the new program a “win for everybody.”Ocean City, which faced steadily declining enrollment from sending districts that pay tuition, saw the new program as a way to bring in revenue and maintain programs. Families saw the program as a chance to place children in a district that was a better fit. And Gov. Chris Christie made good on a promise to provide equal opportunities for students in all New Jersey school districts.But the program that seemed too good to be true may be just that.The state is now sending signals that the program could be too costly and is warning districts not to expand.“We’ve been told to start reeling it back,” Ocean City Board of Education President Joe Clark said at a public meeting last week. “If the program were to leave altogether, and it can, we’d be facing a $2.7 million deficit.”The state froze Ocean City’s “School Choice” seats at 194 for the coming year, and the only spots open are from students who have graduated or left the program.Ocean City had received a waiver from the state in 2014 to enroll siblings of students already accepted into the program. With that option now gone, the school district was faced with the task of telling many “School Choice” families they’ll have to send younger siblings to schools in different districts in different towns.At the its meeting on Aug. 12, the board announced it would allocate all open choice seats to ninth-graders.The decision reduces the district’s exposure if the program were to go away. Ocean City would be committed to educating the students for four years, instead of potentially 12. The board likened it to reeling back the program from the bottom up. The decision also allows a better chance for School Choice K-8 students in the Upper Township district to continue with their classmates at Ocean City High School.“This was not a decision made lightly,” Clark said in a prepared statement released by the district on Friday. “We are proud of our participation in the School Choice program which has enabled us to provide a robust education to all of the children in our schools. Ocean City’s participation in the program enabled the School District to provide a quality education to all students, while maintaining staff positions and upgrading facilities. But just as the school district took the lead five years ago joining school choice, we must again put all of our students first and re-examine our K-8 choice seat allocation due to the uncertainty of the state’s long-term ability to fund the program.”The original goal of the School Choice program was to provide educational opportunities to at-risk learners in 10 New Jersey schools. The program was made permanent in 2010 and expanded to 134 districts with more than 5,000 students enrolled.Challenges began to arise in 2013, when the NJDOE capped enrollment to the program and denied new district applications, the district suggested in its news release. State Education Commissioner David Hespe has gone on record about the possibility of the program being limited to children from lower-performing schools and those with a demonstrated need, according to the district.The school board formed an ad-hoc committee in January 2015 to review the School Choice program. In February, the district sent a letter to the families who submitted applications for the K-8 seats and informed them that the open seats for the 2015-2016 school year would be for ninth-grade students in order to provide them time to make alternate arrangements.The district said the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee supported the limiting of Ocean City’s participation in the program by allocating available choice seats to 9th graders who meet the set academic criteria.School board members last week suggested that while the program has been a great success for the district, it has not really met the mandate to provide better opportunities for at-risk students.Board member Fran Newman suggested that Ocean City’s School Choice population is made up more of students looking to get into a good college or to get away from social problems in their former districts than of underprivileged students.“The spirit of the law is to help at-risk kids,” board member Jacqueline McAlister said. “The letter of the law has been followed. The spirit of the law has not.”last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *