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Parental-Choice Bill Readied in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts would become the second state to give public-school students the choice of transferring--at no cost to them--to any district in the state, under draft legislation to be submitted to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis this month.

The proposed legislation, drafted by the state's department of education, contains many of the provisions included in the open-enrollment law adopted in Minnesota this year.

But it builds on that model by adding programs intended to make urban schools more competitive and to give the state a greater role in marketing public schools to parents.

"Certainly, the energy behind the effort here owes a tremendous amount to Minnesota," said Charles Glenn, author of the proposal and director of the department's office of educational equity. "We wouldn't be moving ahead on this if they hadn't moved first."

All students would be free, under the department's plan, to transfer out of their district of residence. But all districts would be able to decide whether or not to accept incoming transfers. The districts would be free to determine the number of open seats available at each of their schools, but would not be permitted to impose any other admission criteria.

The plan's basic framework, Mr. Glenn said, reflects the department's position that "school systems own their schools, but they don't own their students."

The proposal was drafted as an al4ternative to a parental-choice bill vetoed by Governor Dukakis this past summer. In his veto message, the Governor asked the state board to begin a pilot choice program in January 1989 and to submit "whatever statutory language and budget you believe will be necessary to implement this program on a broader scale in fiscal year 1990."

Department officials said that none of the state's districts were prepared to implement a pilot interdistrict transfer program in January, but that their bill would provide a framework for such pilots to begin next September.

The measure the Governor vetoed was a pilot program that would have allowed students from Boston and Worcester to attend schools in neighboring districts, with the state and the district from which the student transferred responsible for funding the full per-pupil cost.

Educators and civil-rights leaders criticized that measure, which had been sponsored by Senate President William M. Bulger, on the grounds that it would create financial hardships for the urban schools and would fail to protect against a mass exodus of white students from the cities' schools. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)

The department's proposal addresses these concerns by requiring the state to assume most of the costs of the program. But the state's maximum payment would be about $2,000 per student transfer, making the new plan considerably less costly per student than the vetoed bill.

By the 1991-92 school year, the bill's author estimates, a maximum of 2,000 students would be likely to transfer to a new district, at a total cost to the state of $6.4 million.

More than half of this total--$3.5 million--would be used to fund educational improvements, such as the creation of new urban magnet schools, initiatives by teacher groups, and the development of new cooperative programs between districts.

These programs could help to improve education, Mr. Glenn said, "even if not a single kid moves."

The department's support for the bill hinges on the inclusion of provisions to make urban schools more effective and to ensure that all parents are fully informed about school choices, he said.

"If those two things are not included," said Mr. Glenn, the department "should not support the overall plan."

"We do believe choice can work powerfully to improve education," he added, "but ensuring equity remains our top priority."

Under the proposal, the state would also pay the transportation costs of any transferring students who are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Districts operating under desegregation plans would be required to amend their plans to accommodate the student-transfer program. The state board would reserve the right to reject amendments to the bill that would have a negative impact on current desegregation plans.

A statewide choice law would "fit very naturally" with proposals toconvert Boston's student-assignment process to a "controlled choice" model, Mr. Glenn noted.

Some 70,000 Massachusetts students currently attend schools of choice in a number of urban districts that use voluntary transfers to promote desegregation. The figure includes some 3,500 minority students from Boston who transfer to nearby districts under the state's metco program.

Choice only emerged as a state-level issue, however, after Senator Bulger introduced his bill in the spring legislative session.

And, in contrast to Minnesota, where a groundswell of public support helped ensure passage of the open-enrollment law, there is no organized push for a state-level choice bill in Massachusetts.

But while the lack of an identifiable constituency could pose difficulties during debate over the choice bill, Mr. Glenn said, "being a one-man band on this means I don't have any unwelcome allies."

Education groups and their allies would be much less likely to back the choice proposal, he explained, if they felt its supporters intended to broaden the bill to include vouchers or other means of tranferring scarce resources from public to private schools.

The draft plan was presented to the state board late last month, and is expected to be considered by the board at a meeting scheduled for Dec. 22.

The proposed bill will be transmitted to Governor Dukakis this month regardless of whether it receives the board's endorsement, Mr. Glenn said.

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