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Convenience Is Not the Driving Force Behind Choice Decisions, Study Finds

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A new study on Massachusetts' school-choice program suggests that, rather than choosing schools that are convenient, parents in the program are enrolling their children in schools with higher socioeconomic status and better academic achievement than those they left behind.

The study, scheduled to be published this month in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, fuels the debate going on across the nation over what drives parents to participate in school-choice programs. Choice proponents say schools that compete for students in an open marketplace will be forced to improve academically or risk losing students.

Critics say those proponents are wrong, in part because many parents who participate in interdistrict choice programs select schools out of convenience and not for academic reasons.

But in his new report, Richard Fossey, a Louisiana State University researcher, concludes that "in Massachusetts at least, it would be a mistake to dismiss interdistrict school choice as a phenomenon driven by family convenience."

Once dubbed by critics to be the "most punitive" choice program in the nation, Massachusetts' interdistrict program began in 1991. For every student who participates, the state pays the receiving school district a tuition that is roughly equal to the average amount the district spends per pupil. It deducts the same amount from state aid to the student's home district.

The controversial program has since been modified to ease the burden on poorer districts that lose students and to defray the cost of transportation for participating students from low-income families.

By fall 1992, when Mr. Fossey looked at the program, only a third of the state's 351 school districts were participating, and most of those were in suburban areas. The 3,000 students in the program that year constituted one-half of 1 percent of the state's public school enrollment and were predominantly white.

Mr. Fossey collected data only on the 33 districts that drew 20 or more students from a single town, reasoning that movements of that size would indicate that parents were dissatisfied with the schools in their home districts.

He found that in all but one case the receiving districts had higher median family incomes than the students' home communities. Most of those districts also spent more per pupil and had higher percentages of college-educated adults.

In terms of student achievement, Mr. Fossey's analysis showed that standardized-test scores for 12th graders in science and in mathematics were higher in the receiving districts than in the home districts.

The districts that lost students, in contrast, had higher dropout rates and higher suspension rates.

"These early indications strongly suggest that families are not making decisions to change districts for reasons of mere convenience," Mr. Fossey states. "On the contrary, families seemed to be making rational decisions when transferring their children out of their home communities, choosing districts with higher indicators of student performance and higher socioeconomic status than the districts they left."

A survey of families released by state school officials last spring reached a similar conclusion.

Another View

But some school administrators in the state said a few of the findings did not square with their own experiences.

Thomas Fowler-Finn, who is the superintendent in Haverhill, an urban district hard-hit by the choice program, said his surveys of the families leaving his district show that half chose their children's schools out of convenience. He said other parents' decisions appeared to be racially motivated.

"They would say, 'I sent my child to school X because the children there all speak English,'" he said. He also said few, if any, parents had access to information on the academic quality of any of the schools.

But Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute in Minnesota and a supporter of school choice, said the issue of convenience versus academic quality is overblown.

"I think critics of choice have made a serious mistake in putting down arrangements that make families function more effectively," he said.

Mr. Nathan said studies of choice programs in other states, such as Arizona, Iowa, and Minnesota, suggest that both academics and convenience motivate school-choice participation.

In his report, however, Mr. Fossey says he does not endorse choice.

"For a school-choice program to improve the overall quality of public education," he writes, "it must do more than place a few children in schools of relatively high socioeconomic status; it must also improve schools in poorer communities."

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