Massachusetts Districts Turn Thumbs Down On State’s Hastily Passed Choice Program

September 11, 1991 6 min read

Many Massachusetts school districts are greeting their state’s new school-choice law in much the same way that residents awaited last month’s Hurricane Bob: shutting their doors and warning of disaster.

As schools opened last week throughout the most populous state yet to adopt choice, a large majority of district officials had chosen not to receive students under the new law, which they criticized as hastily conceived and likely to worsen inequity among districts.

The legislature, which approved the open-enrollment program this year with little debate or opposition, convened last week under pressure to revise it. And at least one district has discussed filing a suit to halt the program’s further implementation.

Even among the handful of school committees that have opted to accept transfer students, many said they did so defensively, to help guard against a net loss of students and state aid once a neighboring district opened its doors.

“The program is desperately flawed and is going to need some touching up if it is going to work,” said Thomas J. Cullen, superintendent of the Milford School Department, which adopted choice and began to advertise for students to guard against enrollment losses.

“The funding mechanism is an absolute mess,” said Paul H. Gorden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

“Many districts,” Mr. Gorden said, “Have voted not to participate in it as receiving schools because they reject the method of funding and fool that, even if they gain by it financially, they morally don’t want to be responsible for the sending school districts losing that kind of money.”

Gloucester’s Big Losses

As of last week, 12 of the state’s 361 operating districts had opted to accept students under the choice program.

The law states that any district can lose students to other districts regardless of whether it opts to receive new students from outside. The measure requires receiving districts to accept all students who want to transfer, but provides no additional state funding to implement the program or transport students across district lines.

The chief problem with the law, in the eyes of most critics, is the way in which it handles state school aid. When a student transfers, the sending district loses to the receiving district an amount of state aid equal to the tuition charged by the receiving district, which is usually about the same as it spends per pupil.

As a result, a child who leaves a district that spends $3,000 per student in order to enroll in a district that spends $6,000 per student takes with him $6,000 of the sending district’s state aid.

The Gloucester district provides a clear example of the potential impact of the law. Last year, 42 students from Gloucester attended schools in nearby Manchester-by-the-Sea on a parent-paid tuition basis.

Because those students now will be able te pay their tuition with Gloucester’s state-aid funds, however, the coastal community stands to lose at least $200,000 of its $1.04-million aid allotment, and could take an even bigger cut if more students transfer.

Per-pupil expenditures in Massachusetts range from $2,700 to $8,700, according to the state education department, although most fall between $3,700 and $4,800.

Mulling a Court Fight

The Manchester-by-the-Sea School Committee last month voted overwhelmingly to accept students under the choice law. But Gloucester is mulling a fight.

The Gloucester School Committee last month considered filing suit to block the program, but decided to wait until October, when the state is scheduled to release figures showing how the district has been affected.

Superintendent William J. Leafy of Gloucester said the district in the meantime will recruit other districts to join its potential suit and will back pending litigation addressing the equity of state funding.

Naomi Stenberg, a lawyer for the Gloucester schools, said she is prepared to argue that the choice law unconstitutionally benefits wealthier children and districts.

The choice law, she asserted, also violates the provisions of Proposition 2½ , a state law that prohibits the state from imposing new requirements on districts without additional funding.

Proposition 2½ also restricts local tax increases, limiting the ability of districts to raise money to offset enrollment losses, Mr. Crowley noted.

Resistance to the choice law is also particularly strong in the Boston area. Lois Harmson-Jones, superintendent of the Boston public schools, has recommended that her district not accept transfer students, so that city children are not pushed out of the district’s elite high schools, where entrance is governed by exams.

In addition, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn this summer wrote to Gov. William F. Weld asking that he delay implementation of the program for one year to allow further study.

The school committee in suburban Brookline, moreover, last month voted unanimously not to accept students, on the grounds that opening its doors would harm Boston’s schools.

More Diversity Seen

Other districts, though, see benefits from choice. Uxbridge, the first district in the state to adopt choice, stands to gain about 35 students and plans to use provisions of the new law to launch a compact with neighboring districts willing to exchange students, according to Superintendent Michael B. Renan.

“We are a rural area, and were looking to get more diversity and specialization of programs” through the compact, Mr. Renan said.

William J. Crowley, executive assistant to the state commissioner of education, said most of the districts that adopted choice plans were located in clusters either near Uxbridge, in the Blackstone Valley area, or in the western part of the state.

Once a district has opted to receive students, Mr. Crowley explained, the surrounding districts have felt pressure to follow suit and open their doors to new students to offset their potential loss of enrollment.

“We would not have done it if our neighbors had not done it,” said Roland M. Miller, superintendent of Lenox Public Schools, which decided to receive students only after the neighboring Berkshire Hills and Lee districts did so.

As a result of its decision, Lenox will lose some students to the neighboring districts but will draw others from them. “We are going to have a net gain, but if we did not join we would lose money,” Mr. Miller said.

Choice for the Few?

The choice program is the result of three amendments that were attached to larger appropriations bills that received overwhelming support.

The first measure, passed in March, outlined a choice plan and said the receiving districts would bill the state for new students, but did not say where the state funds would come from. The two other measures, passed in July, specified that the money would be taken out of Chapter 70 school aid, which is allocated to communities according to a formula based on enrollment and need.

Two Republican senators, Arthur E. Chase and Jane Maria Swift, last month proposed legislation to revise the program substantially.

While voicing support for the school-choice principle, Senator Chase called the current law “a reverse Robin Hood” that is “hurtful, selective, and destructive educationally” and could devastate the budgets of large urban systems. He also criticized the current program’s lack of funding for transportation, arguing that it “represents choice for the few who can afford it, taken out of the hides of those who cannot.” The proposed changes would provide that the state pay the tuition of transferring students--instead of deducting it from the sending district’s state aid and would require parents with incomes over $38,000 a year to contribute to the tuition costs of their transferring students.

The measure also calls for a state-funded transportation system for transferring students. The new choice program would take effect in the 1992-1993 school year as a one-year pilot project that would limit the number of students allowed to transfer out of many urban systems.

President of the Senate William M. Bulger, a key sponsor of the original choice measure, acknowledged that the legislature should pay for the transportation of poorer students.

Transportation expenses were not included in the original choice law, Senator Bulger said, because “the opponents were so strident and powerful that, if we would have put any costs on it, it would have been up for defeat.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Massachusetts Districts Turn Thumbs Down On State’s Hastily Passed Choice Program