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There’s a lot less choice in New Jersey’s Interdistrict Public School Choice program this year.

Enrollment in the program is frozen, which means for 2016-17, participating schools will only be able to replace choice students who graduate or leave the district.

Participating districts are still taking applications but warn parents there may be no room.

Vineland and Mainland Regional High School currently have no open seats for next year, although families still call.

“I usually tell parents to fill out the forms and send them to me so I can put them on a waiting list just in case the state changes their mind,” said Nathan Frey, Vineland assistant superintendent.

There are currently 131 state-approved Interdistrict Public School Choice districts serving about 5,000 students from other districts. The state provides extra money for those students, about $53 million this year.

Advocates are meeting with state officials to try to develop a plan to keep the program without costing the state more money.

Ocean City will have 31 open seats next year, but only for high school freshmen.

Matthew Carey, director of student services for the Ocean City school district, said he already has received 25 or 30 applications, and anticipates between 50 and 75 by the Dec. 1 application deadline. By law, a lottery will determine who attends.

Robert Garguilo, chairman of the board of directors of the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association, or NJIPSCA, has proposed allowing participating districts to increase enrollment by reducing aid each year.

“The state has made it clear that they can’t afford to expand,” said Garguilo, who helped Folsom become one of the most successful choice districts in the state and currently serves as interim superintendent in Northfield. “At some point there needs to be a cap, but we want a way to save the program because parents and students want it.”

He said when the program first expanded in 2010, districts jumped at the opportunity to get choice aid when other state aid was frozen.

“We said (to the state), ‘Don’t go so fast,’” Garguilo said. “But parents wanted it and districts saw a gravy train.”

State education officials said they are exploring funding options and focusing growth in areas where there is a demonstrated need, such as low-performing schools.

Valarie Smith, co-executive director of the NJIPSCA, provided results of a survey the association did showing more than 1,400 students were on waiting lists this year in the 64 choice districts responding to the survey. Most districts said the program had increased the diversity of their student body.

“Most districts have said they would take less money per student if they could take more students,” she said. “We’d like to work on this for next year’s budget. If we can drive the per-student cost down, we can get more students and schools involved.”

For choice districts, the extra students and the state aid that accompanies them have saved academic programs and helped control property taxes.

Cumberland Regional’s agriculture program typically gets about twice as many applications as it has open seats, said Lauren T. Taniguchi, coordinator of grants, communications and special projects. The school has 20 open seats for next year, primarily for freshmen.

For small and shrinking districts, the choice program was a savior. As a result of choice, Folsom can sustain two classes per grade level and a offer full-day preschool. The school has an enrichment program, Spanish and sign language.

“Our choice program is still strong,” Folsom Superintendent Evelyn Browne said. Of 401 K-8 students, 208 are choice. The school has 29 choice seats available for 2016-17 and has received 35 applications.

West Cape May has no choice seats for next year but does have preschool openings for parents willing to pay tuition, who can then move their children into the choice program in kindergarten. The K-6 district has just 44 resident students and 41 choice students, and would like to accept more.

“The enrollment caps have put a damper on our expansion plans,” Superintendent Alfred Savio said.

Cape May Superintendent Victoria Zelenak said parents who are moving out of the district will ask whether their children can stay in Cape May, but with the freeze, all she can offer them is the waiting list.

“It’s very frustrating, because we could accommodate more children,” she said.

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