Students enrolling at select high schools under New Jersey’s Choice School Program Act will be subject beginning next year to NJSIAA transfer rules, according to Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, who chairs the state Assembly Education Committee.
Diegnan said the state Department of Education, reacting to concerns of players transferring for athletic advantage, will allow the NJSIAA to impose a rule that requires student-athletes to sit the first 30 days of a season upon transferring to any of the 109 school districts statewide whose high schools are part of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.
“I am pleased that the Department of Education has listened to the voices of concerned high school athletic directors, coaches and parents,” said Diegnan, noting a representative from the state Department of Education announced the rules change during an annual Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey conference at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City on Tuesday.
“This decision represents noteworthy progress toward what can only be described as a more common sense rule that allows all schools to operate on a level playing field. The enforcement of the 30-day transfer rule refocuses our attention on the things that really matter, the core value of high school athletics and the educational benefits of the interdistrict school choice program.”
The Choice School Program Act, which became state law in 2010, increases educational opportunities for students by allowing them to attend a state Department of Education-approved public school within 20 miles of their district of residence without cost to their parents.
It unintentionally strengthened sports teams at several high schools including Bound Brook, where five starting wrestlers and four starting boys basketball players are choice school transfers. The Crusaders recently won their second consecutive state Group I wrestling championship and reached the Central Group I boys basketball final.
“We have always been in favor of the 30-day transfer rule,” Bound Brook Principal Daniel Gallagher said, “because we want people to come to Bound Brook for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.”
Diegnan said the issue of dealing with the transfer of student-athletes under the Choice School Program Act never arose when the legislation was initially discussed in the state Assembly Education Committee.
In an interview with New Jersey Press Media last year, Diegnan said, prophetically, “If this becomes what appears to be a continuing issue, obviously it’s something that should be addressed. Let’s give it a year. We can make revisions to the law.”
Choice schools began as a pilot program with 10 school districts in 1999 and grew to 71 in 2011-12 with the addition of 56 school districts after Gov. Chris Christie signed a new bill into law.
The program’s legislative intent was to give educational options to parents who are dissatisfied for whatever reason with their child’s current public school system.
The NJSIAA was hamstrung at the onset when acting state Department of Education commissioner Chris Cerf asked that choice school transfers continue to be immediately eligible for competition and not subject to the NJSIAA’s 30-day transfer rule. The NJSIAA’s executive committee, with no recourse, voted to honor Cerf’s request.
NJSIAA officials said the association did not receive formal complaints during the 2011-12 academic year regarding choice school students transferring for athletic advantage, but they did receive anonymous phone calls and correspondences alleging impropriety.
The Star Ledger of Newark reported Tuesday that the NJSIAA’s eligibility appeals committee reviewed five cases this year of students allegedly being recruited or transferring for athletic advantage to choice schools. Two student-athletes who transferred from Lacey to Central Regional were ruled ineligible, according to the newspaper.
NJSIAA officials said every student-athlete who transferred last year to a choice school received signed transfer waiver forms from their sending schools, stating the player transferred “without inducement or recruitment or to seek an athletic advantage.”
Hunterdon Central, two-time defending champion of the Shop Rite Cup as the Group IV school with the most state tournament success among all its athletics programs, will become a choice school program in the fall.
Middlesex County has not yet been awarded a choice school district.