School Choice & Charters

Mass. Study Supplies Ammunition To Supporters and Critics of Choice

By Debra Viadero — April 16, 1997 3 min read

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.

‘Beneficial Policy’

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.

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Opinion Is Hybrid Home Schooling the Future of Education?
Rick Hess speaks with Mike McShane about hybrid home schooling, which combines the best of home schooling and traditional schooling.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters Oklahoma Charter Schools Granted Local Tax Revenue in 'Seismic' Settlement
A groundbreaking settlement will fundamentally change the way charter schools are funded in Oklahoma, despite vehement opposition.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
This July 19, 2019 photo shows an Epic Charter Schools office in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted Thursday in favor of an agreement with the state's public charter school association to settle a 2017 lawsuit.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
School Choice & Charters COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear
The pandemic is driving legislators' interest in mechanisms like education savings accounts, but the growth may not be straightforward.
8 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 12 at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address to state lawmakers on Jan. 12. She's pushing a major school choice expansion.
Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP
School Choice & Charters Letter to the Editor Are NOLA Charters a Mixed Bag?
To the Editor:
The opinion essay by Douglas N. Harris about how New Orleans’ education reforms post-Katrina are relevant to the COVID-19 era (“As Schools Recover After COVID-19, Look to New Orleans,” Sept. 30, 2020) highlights some basic improvements in the NOLA system but downplays the most significant aspects of those changes: the impact on people of color.
1 min read