New Massachusetts School-Choice Program Gets a Mixed Reception

CHANGING EDUCATION

SCHOOLS opened on a somewhat subdued note in this coastal city north of Boston as the state embarked on a controversial new education program.Local officials, teachers, and parents here are concerned about dramatic state funding cutbacks in their city due to a cross-district school choice program. The new system, which allows parents to choose the schools their children attend, is funded by subtracting state local aid money from a "sending" community and transferring it to a "receiving" community - one that accepts nonresident students. Unfairness charged Critics say the new law unfairly targets poorer cities, like Gloucester, while it benefits wealthier communities. Gloucester officials estimate that their school system will lose $300,000 to $350,000 in state local-aid money because approximately 66 Gloucester students will attend school in neighboring Manchester-by-the-Sea. "Every kid who under this flawed scheme goes to Manchester out of the Gloucester school system takes a sum of money ... out of our [state aid] allocation, and we can't afford the further losses of revenue," says Gloucester Mayor Bruce Tobey. School choice is gaining increased popularity in districts across the United States. The idea is to stimulate reform and innovative programming through competition. The Bush administration has been a strong supporter of school choice and favors the inclusion of private and parochial schools. "The whole philosophy of choice is that it will shut down those schools that aren't being productive [or] there will be more of an effort to make those schools better," says Kathy Christie, research assistant for the Education Commission of the States. Some 10 states have cross-district choice programs, according to Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Choice at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs. Parts of Massachusetts and Minnesota have had some kind of school choice for several years. An intra-district program in Cambridge, Mass., has been cited as a model choice program. But the new Massachusetts cross-district program, allowing parents to send their children to any school district in the state, is causing tension this fall. Besides the funding issue, critics also say the law is unfair because it does not provide proper information to parents, fails to provide transportation, and allows communities to charge high tuition costs. State Sen. Arthur Chase says Gloucester's predicament is a typical example of how the system can fail. "The problem is that the law does not provide for transportation ... so that only those that can afford it can send their kids over to Manchester-by-the-Sea," Senator Chase says. Joanne Graves, chairwoman of the Manchester-by-the-Sea school committee, says her town cut school funding by $200,000 last May. But the tuition from 129 nonresident slots this fall will help fill the need to continue the schools' nationally ranked programs, she says. "To call it a pure economic issue is a mistake for us," Ms. Graves says. "We are committed to education. We always have been, with or without choice." This year only 18 Massachusetts school districts out of 361 statewide have voted to adopt the choice program and accept nonresident students. No school district can prevent its students from attending schools that have voted to accept nonresident students.

Minnesota cited Many educators say school choice, if implemented properly, can be very successful. They cite Minnesota's cross-district program, which relies on heavy state funding instead of local property taxes. There are a handful of legislative proposals to reform Massachusetts's school choice program. Chase has filed legislation that would create a designated fund for the state's school choice program. That money would provide tuition funding on a sliding scale based on family income. Chase's bill would also initiate a parent information campaign and would require host communities to provide transportation. Mr. Nathan says a good choice program offers four important elements: transportation, extensive information to parents, wide opportunity to create new kinds of schools, and an open-admissions policy.

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