Cape May County has about 350 fewer students in its public schools this year than in 2010-11. But school districts there will get almost $7 million more in state aid next year, with $5.4 million of it paying for students in the Interdistrict Public School Choice program whose parents have chosen to send them to a different school within the same county.

That extra aid is good news for county schools, but a growing problem for the state Department of Education, which has encouraged the choice program but is now grappling with funding it.

Parents clearly love the program. Deanna Ebner, who lives in Cape May Point, but sends her daughter, Catalina, to kindergarten in the West Cape May School District.

“I heard such great things about it,” she said. “My daughter loves it and it’s only seven minutes away.”

Only 74 students attend the pre-kindergarten to sixth-grade West Cape May School, and 30 do not live in that district. They attend through the Choice program, which lets students apply to attend school in a state-approved choice school in another town. Those 30 choice students generated $400,000 in state aid this year, more than 80 percent of the tiny district’s total state aid.

Nine of the 14 traditional public school districts in Cape May County participate in the choice program. Its popularity reflects an effort to address both the shrinking enrollment in county schools, and the resulting loss of state aid.

Districts currently get about $10,000 per student in choice aid for every child who comes in from another district. In just four years, the statewide cost has grown from $9 million a year to an anticipated $54 million for almost 5,000 students in 136 choice districts in 2014-15.

More than 20 percent of all districts now accept choice students.

Advocates for the program said the state must establish a growth and funding process for choice aid that is consistent and fair, or the program could become unsustainable. The state set a 5 percent cap on enrollment growth in current choice districts next year, but also added 23 new choice districts. The cap meant some choice districts could only add only one or two new students.

“No one thought choice would be as popular as it is,” said Valarie Smith of the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association. “But now the process has to be fixed. The money should follow the child.”

The aid process for 2014-15 provides more state aid for districts that accept choice students, but takes no aid away from districts that lose those students. That will greatly benefit Cape May County school districts, but demonstrates the growing statewide funding problem.

In 2008-2009, with Lower Township as on the county’s only choice district, Cape May County schools received almost $68.5 million in state aid, with $557,000 in choice aid going to Lower Township.

But when the recession hit, and a new state aid formula took effect, state aid got tighter and began to more closely reflect enrollment. Cape May County’s share dropped to $58.4 million in 2010-11, with $550,000 still allocated for choice students in Lower Township.

Facing further aid cuts, and possibly the closure of some small schools, more districts began applying to the choice program, which the Legislature approved to expand. Choice aid quickly offset other losses.

For 2014-15, Cape May County schools will get $65.5 million in state aid, including almost $5.4 million in aid for 421 choice students, But countywide there are about 350 fewer students in the public schools now than in 2010-11.

With a few exceptions, almost all of the choice students are just moving from one county school district to another, generating more state aid, but few new students in county schools.

Twenty-three of the new choice students in Upper Township are from other Cape districts, including 11 from Dennis Township and eight from Woodbine, according to district figures

All but one of Lower Cape May Regional 39 choice students come from Middle Township (23), Wildwood (10) and Woodbine (5).

Lower Township also gets most of its 75 choice students from Middle Township and Wildwood, with a few from Cape May, the Wildwoods and West Cape May. West Cape May gets most of its students from Lower Township.

That choice, said West Cape May superintendent Alfred Savio, is great for families, who can chose what is best for their child rather than just accept what is offered in their town.

“Some come here because they want a small school,” said Savio, whose school is so small that some classes combine two grades and still have only about 15 students. “Other families leave for Lower Township because they want a larger school with more activities, clubs and sports that we can’t offer.”

Lower Township superintendent George Drozdowksi said the program has allowed children to stay in the local school with their friends even after they moved out of the township.

School officials said the choice program has allowed them to maintain programs and control property taxes. The almost $400,000 Upper Township will receive for its 35 choice students helped keep the budget at the 2 percent cap, superintendent Vincent Palmieri said.

One of the most popular choice districts, Ocean City, has 166 choice students this year, and will have 194 next year, with a waiting list of about 40 students, choice coordinator Eric Ortolf said. The district was approved for only eight new students, but got a waiver from the state to accept all siblings of current choice students, who are given preference under the law. The district had planned to add at least 40 new students.

Ortolf said he understands that the state did not realize how fast the program would grow, but districts planned their programs and funding based on choice, and the program will likely falter with strict state limits. Ocean City may now limit choice only to the high school.

“The extra aid allows us to keep programs and staff and that helps the kids,” Ortolf said. The district will get almost $2.7 million in choice aid for next year.

The choice program can also have a funding ripple effect on nonchoice districts. Kindergarten through eighth-grade districts that pay tuition to send their students to high school in another district save that money if the student instead enrolls in a choice high school such as Ocean City.

Margate, Ventnor and Brigantine will save money they would have spent sending students to Atlantic City, but that in turn is hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to Atlantic City, which this year joined the choice program, but will only get about $121,000 in choice aid for 12 new students.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to help students. Acting education Commissioner David Hespe told the Senate Budget Committee that the program has been in the forefront of the state’s effort to offer families more choice.

Dorey Bryan, of Lower Township, had previously paid tuition to send her children to the West Cape May School and was delighted that her son can now attend for free as a choice student. She works as an administrative assistant at the school and said while it’s very small, it just works for students who may have struggled in larger districts.

“There are no cliques, the students have to all get along with each other because there just aren’t that many students,” she said. “The students get a lot of personal attention, and the parents and everyone pitches in. It’s an awesome school.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Cape May County choice aid

Chart shows increase in state school-choice aid for participating schools in Cape May County

Year    State aid

2014-15    $5,358,092

2013-14    $3,698,291

2012-13    $1,716,611

2011-12    $936,208

2010-11    $551,060

2009-10    $550,260    

Source: N.J. Department of Education