Mass. Education Panel Votes To Repeal Choice Law

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The Massachusetts legislature's joint education committee has voted to repeal the state's controversial school-choice law that was hastily adopted during the budget process last year.

The legislative panel cast its nearly unanimous, bipartisan vote late last month, shortly after the committee's chairmen reported that progress in negotiations on a long awaited education-reform package had been impeded by disagreements over funding.

Rather than allow what they considered to be a seriously flawed program stretch into a second year, the committee moved to halt it in the event that the comprehensive legislation stalls.

"In Massachusetts, we really perverted the notion of what choice was all about,'' said Representative Michael R. Knapik, a Republican advocate of school choice who led the effort to repeal the law.

"It was a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario,'' he said. "Communities were making decisions purely for economic reasons and not for educational reasons.''

'Panic Sets In'

Under the Massachusetts choice law, students may attend the participating public school district of their choice with state aid following them. But some sending districts actually ended up owing considerably more to receiving districts than they were allotted in state aid because the law permits receiving districts to charge tuition equal to their own per-pupil costs.

For example, the Brockton district received $2,000 per pupil in state aid in 1989-90, but spent about $4,000 for each student. Yet, it was expected to pay the Avon district, which took in more than 100 of Brockton's students this school year, anywhere from $4,600 per elementary student to $10,200 per high-school student. Kindergarten costs ran $2,200 per pupil.

The law, which does not cover transportation costs, also tended to benefit children from white, middle-income families, many of whom had already been sending their children to out-of-district schools and paying tuition on their own. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

To ease some of the financial stress, the legislature late last year appropriated $2.4 million in emergency aid to school districts that had been penalized when their students elected to take advantage of the school-choice program and attend other districts.

At the time, however, only 28 districts were participating in the program. The number has now risen to 45, according to the state education department.

"One by one, as we predicted, school systems have been opting for school choice for next year,'' said Senator Arthur E. Chase, a Republican from Worcester and a leading opponent of the law. "As they do this, there is a recognition by those who are going to lose students of the potential devastation. All of a sudden panic sets in.''

Senator Chase projects that, by next year, transfers will increase from 835 to between 3,000 and 5,000, and the cost will rise from $4.3 million to between $15 million and $25 million, if the law is not changed.

Repeal or Revise

Legislators said they would be willing to permit their repeal bill to die if negotiators working on a comprehensive school-reform package include a modified version of choice.

For months, the joint committee's chairmen, Senator Thomas Birmingham and Representative Mark Roosevelt, have been meeting regularly with Gov. William F. Weld and his aides and with John C. Rennie, the chairman of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, to craft what they envisioned as a far-reaching plan to rejuvenate a severely impaired state education system.

Lawmakers had expected the education-reform package to be unveiled April 15, but several disagreements have pushed that date back.

Until mid-April, said Representative Knapik, "we had been patient with the legislative leadership and the Governor, but nothing ever came.''

When the education committee asked its chairmen for an update on negotiations, Mr. Knapik said, the membership discovered the talks had not focused on choice.

"It was that frustration'' that prompted the repeal measure, he said. "We have to put a stop to it. The financing is ridiculous.''

Although several lawmakers have introduced proposals to revamp the choice law, one that appears to have some support was proposed by Senator Chase.

His plan proposes a phase-in period of four years, during which the home district would lose a slightly larger percentage of its funding each year. Instead of charging their own per-pupil costs, though, receiving districts would get an amount equal to the state average.

His proposal also includes a transportation stipend on a needs basis for K-6 students. The stipend would be borne by the receiving district.

"By the end of the fourth year, our feeling is there is now a level playing field,'' said Senator Chase.

Funding Dispute

Many of the choice proposals are predicated on an overhaul in the financing of public education in the state, which appears to be the stumbling block in the reform-bill talks.

A recent study published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that K-12 funding suffered more during the past decade than had been noted previously.

As the state bore more of the costs for local government services--partially as a result of the revenue-limiting Proposition 2 1/2--precollegiate education lost financial ground to more traditional state government services, the study concludes.

Earlier this year, Governor Weld pledged an additional $800 million for public education over the next five years.

In the midst of the talks, however, parties to the negotiations say, the Governor decided he would neither agree to raise taxes nor modify Proposition 2 1/2 to raise those funds.

In a letter to Governor Weld, which urges him to reconsider his position, Mr. Rennie outlined the terms of the dispute as well as voiced his anguish that months of labor could prove fruitless.

According to the letter, the working group had agreed in March to provide districts support to allow them to spend a minimum of $5,661 per pupil. The money would come from either the state or the local community or a combination of both, depending on the affluence of the locality.

The administration subsequently pulled back its proposed foundation level to $5,300 per pupil, and then to $4,800 per pupil.

Until April 7, Mr. Rennie wrote, he was optimistic about the progress that had been made. Then, he said, the demeanor changed.

"[A]n administration plan was put on the table with a 'best and final offer' tone,'' Mr. Rennie wrote. "This plan represented a retrenchment and took everyone aback.''

After making some concessions, the letter continued, the business alliance made a counterproposal that the administration rejected out of hand.

"What is unacceptable to us is the wholesale wrecking of the underlying integrity of the level of services, ...'' Mr. Rennie wrote. "Once that is serious[ly] breached, it loses its power and force, and we return to a situation where the education requirement becomes what the authorities want to spend!''

"That is wrong, intellectually dishonest, and is a major underlying reason why the schools are declining today, and have been for years,'' he wrote.

Vol. 11, Issue 34, Page 17

Published in Print: May 13, 1992, as Mass. Education Panel Votes To Repeal Choice Law
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