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Shortly after taking office in 1991, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, proposed legislation allowing students to cross school district boundaries to attend the public school of their choice. Weld's bill, which quickly became law, was part of a burgeoning school choice reform movement that led many states during the 1990s to enact charter school laws, private school tuition vouchers, and public school choice plans allowing students to attend public schools outside of their attendance boundaries.
Advocates of the Massachusetts law billed it as a way of making school choice available to families who couldn't afford private school tuition or move into a better school district, and as a way to spur reform through competition between districts.1 But the Massachusetts interdistrict school choice program has not met the law's original goals. Instead, more affluent students and more affluent districts seem to have benefited the most.
The Massachusetts program has grown steadily since its inception and now serves over 10,000 students. The growth in student participation is partly due to an increase in the number of school districts participating in the program. As Chart 1 shows, district participation has increased steadily since the program began, with 155 districts—slightly less than half the districts in Massachusetts—currently participating in the program.
Yet, as Map 1 shows, district participation is not distributed evenly across the state, and students in several districts with high low-income enrollments do not have access to the program. (Click on the map below to see a larger image.) That's because school districts cannot prevent a student from leaving under the program. But they can decide whether to accept transferring students, a provision that allows them to opt-in or opt-out of the state program. On Map 1, black dots indicate which districts choose not to accept any student transfers. Also, each school district is shaded according to the percent of low-income students enrolled in that district, with the darkest districts indicating the highest percent of low-income enrollments.
The suburban districts surrounding several low-income districts—most notably Boston—have chosen not to participate in the school choice program. Thus, students in these low-income districts don't have many educational options under the program. Only one district bordering Boston accepts transferring students. As a result, in 2007 only 48 Boston students utilized the interdistrict choice program to transfer to another school district.
This isn't surprising. Research indicates that if district participation is voluntary, higher-income and higher-performing suburban school districts surrounding large cities generally won’t participate in interdistrict choice programs, denying students in urban districts the option to cross district boundaries to attend a better school.2 This has led some large cities interested in providing more choices to build new autonomous public schools, often through charter schooling.3
As Map 2 shows, in the parts of Massachusetts where districts do participate in the state's choice program, what typically happens is that poor school systems end up sending students to more-affluent districts. And they pay a price for doing so: Under Massachusetts law, if a student transfers into another school district, the sending district must pay tuition fees to the receiving school district, up to $5,000 per student. The green circles on Map 2 represent the number of students each school district sends to another district through the school choice program. (Click on the map below to see a larger image.)
Those low-income districts in Massachusetts that do have substantial numbers of nearby receiving districts often see big losses in student enrollments and revenue, leaving these districts with fewer resources to make improvements and serve the remaining students. The low-income Worcester school district, for example, lost 262 students in 2007 and was forced to pay $1.4 million to other school districts. Springfield, a low-income district in southwestern Massachusetts, lost 550 students—the largest loss of any Massachusetts district under the program—and paid over $3 million in tuition payments to other school districts.
And it can be difficult for sending districts to reduce costs on a per-pupil basis as they lose students; they often can't cut a teaching position, for example, if they lose even 10 or 12 students. Choice supporters view the initial loss of funds as necessary to spur school and district improvement, particularly if low-performing districts change their policies and programs to win students back, as some have done.4
On the other hand, receiving districts have financial incentives for accepting transferring students, particularly if the district has stagnant or declining enrollments. In anticipation of the first year of the program, Manchester-by-the-Sea, an affluent community neighboring the lower-income city of Gloucester, planned to use the law to boost enrollments and restore teaching positions in music, home economics, and science.5 In 2007, Manchester received over $700,000 in tuition payments for transferring students, while Gloucester's net loss under the program was $800,000.
At the same time, the Massachusetts program limits low-income students' participation by failing to ensure that all parents are informed of their options under the program or to provide transportation for students once they've selected new schools.6 As a result, the program has benefited primarily more affluent students, those with the means to find out about their school choices and afford transportation to the schools they select.
A 1997 study on the impact of Massachusetts' choice program by the Pioneer Institute, an organization that supports expanded school choice, reported that "the average interdistrict choice student tends to be more affluent, more academically skilled, and is more likely to be white than the average student in sending school districts."7 Another study also revealed a disproportionate number of white students participating in the program. A 2003 study of Massachusetts' interdistrict choice program by the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC, a public policy think tank, found that 90 percent of the students participating were white, in contrast to the general school population of Massachusetts, which is 76 percent white.8
Such numbers have been consistent since the program's inception. In October 1991, the program's first year, the Massachusetts Department of Education released data showing that 93 percent of the students choosing to leave their home district were white, in contrast to 82 percent of the statewide student population.9 It's possible that many of the transferring students are low-income white students. Data in the 2003 study, for example, did not include the income level of transferring students. But the Pioneer Institute's study indicates otherwise.
Critics of Massachusetts' law warned early on of the major weaknesses in the law. As far back as 1992, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published a study of the law in which it warned Massachusetts that "unless you confront issues of equity, provide transportation, and have parent involvement and education, you have leaped into something that will work to the disadvantage of many school districts and will be something in which many parents cannot participate."10 That same year, then-State Senator Arthur Chase, who represented Worcester, called the law "an educational cancer" that was "sucking critical funds from our most hurting communities."11 Chase also filed a moratorium bill that year in an attempt to stop the school choice program, but it failed.
Massachusetts officials have not heeded such warnings, resulting in a voluntary program that limits choice for low-income students and diminishes resources in low-income districts, where many of these students tend to live. Without substantial changes, interdistrict choice policies like Massachusetts' continue to hold little potential for helping low-income students.
1. Charles Radin, "Report Blasts Mass. School Choice Program; Says Approach May Widen Disparities," The Boston Globe, October 26, 1992.
2. Studies of student movement in Michigan and Ohio, for instance, found that many of the suburban districts surrounding large urban areas, such as Detroit or Cleveland, do not participate in the choice program. An Overview of Open Enrollment (Columbus, OH: Legislative Office of Education Oversight, December 1998) and David Arsen, David Plank, and Gary Sykes, School Choice Policies in Michigan: The Rules Matter (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 1999).
3. Boston students, for example, have access to charter schools, which are independently run public schools, and Pilot schools, which are autonomous public schools operated by the Boston Public School district. Both of these options have proven popular with Boston students. Currently 16 charter schools and 20 Pilot schools are operating in Boston, offering choice to over 15 percent of Boston students (see http://boston.k12.ma.us/bps/bpsglance.asp and http://www.ccebos.org/pilotschools/bostonpilotschools.html#qa for more information).
4. David Armor and Brett Peiser, Competition in Education: A Case Study of Interdistrict Choice (Boston, MA: Pioneer Institute, March 1997).
5. Muriel Cohen and Diego Ribadeneira, "Schooling by Selection," The Boston Globe, August 11, 1991.
6. Erin Dillon, Plotting School Choice: The Challenges of Crossing District Lines (Washington, DC: Education Sector, August 2008).
7. David Armor and Brett Peiser, Competition in Education: A Case Study of Interdistrict Choice.
8. Mapping School Choice in Massachusetts: Data and Findings (Boston, MA: Center for Education Research & Policy, 2003).
9. Muriel Cohen, "Whites Main Users of School Choice," The Boston Globe, October 29, 1991.
10. Charles Radin, "Report Blasts Mass. School Choice Program; Says Approach May Widen Disparities."
11. Arthur Chase, "School-Choice Law Won't Work Without Transportation Help," The Boston Herald, November 29, 1992
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