A candid study of Massachusetts’ interdistrict choice program, released last week, offers statistical ammunition for both sides in the debate over public school choice.
Under the competitive conditions created by the 7-year-old program, the threat of losing students can indeed force poor schools to shape up, the analysis from the conservative Pioneer Institute for Public Policy concludes.
But, as critics of school choice have long suspected, the families who take advantage of the program are overwhelmingly white and affluent.
The Boston-based institute drew its conclusions from an examination of 20 school districts that either lost or gained the largest numbers of students through the program.
As of last year, 38 states had some form of an open-enrollment plan allowing students to attend schools outside their home districts.
Massachusetts’ version interested the researchers for two reasons: First, it has no racial controls. Students can leave and enter school districts without regard to a district’s racial balance. Second, when students leave a district, the home district must pay their tuition costs out of its own state aid.
With other choice plans, the state money simply follows the students as they move to new districts, never really passing into the hands of local school officials.
“It’s more like a market. There really are financial incentives and rewards,” said David J. Armor, the lead author of the book-length report. Mr. Armor, a research professor at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is better known for his research on school desegregation.
Incentive To Improve
In this study, he found that 92 percent of the families participating in Massachusetts’ interdistrict choice program were white. And they had higher incomes on average than both the families who remained in their home districts and the state as a whole.
Moreover, they tended to choose to move their children to wealthier districts. Family income in the receiving districts was an average $13,000 higher than that of the sending districts.
Even so, the report concludes, the choice program did not upset districts’ racial balances.
That’s because many of the districts, such as Springfield, had very large minority populations or were big districts, Mr. Armor said. Thus, the small number of students leaving or entering those schools through the program had little impact on them.
The more than 250 students who left Springfield in 1994-95, for example, made up slightly more than 1 percent of its student population.
Mr. Armor and his co-author, Brett M. Peiser, also found that when faced with net losses of students, three of the school districts studied made improvements such as building a new high school or raising academic standards.
“Two districts used the words ‘wake-up call,’” Mr. Armor said. “Some of them went through several stages of soul-searching. They convened study groups and committees, and they went to the town council and used the loss of students to justify getting back some programs that had been cut.”
The changes even enabled one district to attract students to its schools, reversing its early losses.
But six other districts, deciding that the loss of students had affected them only slightly or not at all, made no changes.
The researchers also interviewed parents and students, who said overwhelmingly that they switched districts because they felt their new schools had better academic standards or curricular programs.
“We concluded that it was nota racial motivation,” said Mr. Armor, noting that half of the hard-hit districts did not have significant minority populations.
“The current interdistrict choice law is a beneficial policy,” the report concludes, “which could be made better by improving racial and economic representation and by fine-tuning the funding formulas.”
Bruce Fuller, an associate professor of public policy and education at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the study’s candor in addressing the racial issue but questioned its conclusion.
“They’re still backing unregulated choice, despite their own evidence that it has this kind of ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ effect,” he said. He also suggested the researchers may have been naive in expecting that participating parents might admit whether they were leaving a district for racial reasons.
For More Information:
Copies of “Competition in Education: A Case Study of Interdistrict Choice” are available for $15 each from the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, 85 Devonshire St., 8th Floor, Boston, Mass. 02109; (617) 723-2277.