Budget Concerns Spur Lawmakers To Reconsider Choice Law in Mass.

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Massachusetts lawmakers are reconsidering the funding formula for their state's school-choice law amid mounting evidence that the recently implemented measure is inflicting severe harm on some districts' already beleaguered budgets.

Preliminary data also suggest that the law is overwhelmingly benefiting children of white, middle-class parents, many of whom had been paying to send their children to out-of-district schools before the choice law was passed.

For now, legislators appear to have decided only to provide some relief to communities that are losing students and big chunks of state aid to other school districts, The legislature's joint education committee this month recommended that $2.1 million be appropriated, but rejected a proposal to overhaul the law. Instead, the panel created a committee to study the measure.

Even so, dissatisfaction appears to be widespread with a law that critics say was hastily passed and flawed. That sentiment is shared by officials in receiving districts, which have gained financially from the law.

The latest stab at assuaging the financial pain of the sending districts represents approximately half the money they are expected to lose in state aid.

The sponsor of the aid proposal, Senator Arthur E. Chase, a Republican from Worcester, initially sought a $4.1-million appropriation, which would have been enough to restore full funding to the sending towns and cities. He subsequently argued for 75 percent funding, but the Democrat- majority legislature halved his initial proposal.

Opponents of the new aid contend that it would undermine a key rationale for school choice--that the threat of losing students and funding will provide an incentive for schools to improve.

"I'm afraid the mindset among some [legislators] is that communities have to be penalized because they are losing students. There appears to be a lack of recognition that students leave for a lot of reasons other than academic," said Senator Chase.

Once the new version of the bill works its way to the Senate floor, Mr. Chase plans to offer an amendment imposing a moratorium on new school-choice transfers for the remainder of the school year. An earlier attempt to block additional transfers almost succeeded, falling on a 20-to-19 floor vote.

Gov. William F. Weld supports the current proposal, a spokesman said. The Governor had threatened to veto an appropriations bill for the higher reimbursement.

Few Poor Students Shift

The choice law, which breezed through the legislature this year with little debate, allows students to leave their home districts and attend public schools in any participating district. The sending school is responsible for paying the per-pupil cost of the receiving district. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1991.)

A Governor's task force recommended that school choice not be implemented until it was better developed and had undergone a pilot program. Nevertheless, the legislature pushed through its own version of the law, which was backed by the powerful president of the Senate, William M. Bulger.

Since the law took effect in September, 28 districts have opened their doors to students from other systems. According to figures released last week by the state education department, 834 students had taken advantage of the program.

Of the children on which the department had ethnic and racial data, 93 percent are white, non-Hispanic students. 82 percent of all pupils in Massachusetts are non-Hispanic whites.

Choice advocates frequently assert that the concept will enable inner-city and minority children to have the same quality education as their middle-class counterparts. Because the Massachusetts choice plan has no provisions for transporting students or informing parents of their options, though, opponents say the law fails to help many children.

Senator Chase cited Brockton as an example. One-fourth of the students live in households that are eligible for welfare, but fewer than 4 percent of those children have transferred to other districts.

"I would support school choice if it were done in a proper manner, but this is for the rich, and it is being paid for by the poor," he asserted.

Of the students transferring under the choice law, 45 percent are enrolled in high school, where per-pupil costs tend to be higher. Only 7 percent are special-needs students, while 1 percent are enrolled in an occupational program.

Slightly more than half of the choice students were enrolled in out-of-district schools last year. As a result of the choice law, those students' districts of residence are now paying tuition costs previously borne by their parents.

Six communities will pay 51 percent of the total tuition transfer of $4.1 million, while seven systems will receive 76 percent of the total.

Two districts that have been particularly hard hit are Brockton and Gloucester. Although figures are not final, Brockton is expected to lose about $933,000, while Gloucester will give up about $400,000.

'Taking Their Teachers Away'

Under the current funding formula, those districts are likely to lose considerably more money per student than they receive in state aid.

Brockton, for example, spent about $4,000 per pupil in 1989-90, while its primary receiving district, Avon, spent about 50 percent more per pupil, according to Eligijus Suziedelis, coordinator of special projects for the Brockton schools.

The state's share of per-pupil funding to Brockton, however, was only $2,000. "For every youngster we are losing, we will be paying three times what the state gives us for that youngster," said Mr. Suziedelis.

Avon this fall received 109 students transferring from Brockton.

Brockton has had to cut its instructional staff 24 percent, raising teacher-student ratios to as high as 40 to 1, according to Senator Chase.

"How does a community like Brockton improve when you're taking their teachers away from them?" Mr. Chase asked.

Despite the burden on Brockton, Avon officials said they had no choice but to take transfer students.

Avon's current per-pupil cost is $10,200 for high school, $5,800 for middle school, $4,600 for elementary school, and $2,200 for kindergarten.

Last year, when Avon took in 91 tuition-paying students, the district charged parents $1,800 per student. It was not permitted to continue requiring payment under the new law, according to Superintendent Lincoln D. Lynch.

Four years ago, as the state began to cut school aid, Avon began advertising for students. The tuition revenue was used to balance the system's budget, according to Mr. Lynch, and enable it to retain its teachers, who had agreed to forego a contracted raise.

Because districts are no longer allowed to accept tuition-paying students, Mr. Lynch said, Avon elected to become a receiving district.

"It was survival. We had no choice but to take choice," said Mr. Lynch, who characterized the law as "ill conceived and misconceived." "It is a Frankenstein," he added. Mr. Lynch acknowledged, however, that his new students had benefited as a result of their transfer. "They have adjusted very nicely," he said.

Holliston, which had been taking in tuition-paying students for several years, also opted to participate in choice rather than stop accepting out-of-district students.

As a result, it will not have to cut teachers or programs. "Without those additional revenues we would not be able to operate the school system we have," said James W. O'Connell, the acting superintendent.

they were going to be losing students," said Patti H. Gorden, executive director of the Association of School Committees. "Most of the superintendents... are doing it but realize it is totally unfair to losing communities."

Gloucester has lost 69 students, mostly to Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Superintendent William J. Leary of Gloucester said the district had begun several school-improvement projects before the choice law took effect. Nonetheless, a survey of those parents who removed their children indicated they preferred the neighboring community, which is more affluent.

"Folks [were] saying, 'We think Gloucester means well and is working hard to improve its system, but it isn't as affluent,' "Mr. Leary said. "It is a question of perceived affluence."

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as Budget Concerns Spur Lawmakers To Reconsider Choice Law in Mass.
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