Each year, millions of dollars flow from one school system to another thanks to a 1991 Massachusetts law that created inter-district school choice, which offers parents the option of enrolling their children in the public-school district of a community other than their hometown. While the law allows each district to decide whether to accept out-of-district students, no district can deny its students the right to leave.
Parents on Cape Cod are taking full advantage of the law. Preliminary estimates for the current school year from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show Cape schools are educating 2,595 school choice students, 1,127 more than nine years ago. In fact, Cape Cod students who take advantage of school choice make up approximately an eighth of all Massachusetts students taking advantage of the program. It’s a staggering number, considering Cape Cod accounts for less than 3 percent of the Commonwealth’s public school students.
Inter-district school choice is popular among parents because it empowers them to opt for a public school that better meets their children’s needs, regardless of location. As Pioneer Institute has previously mentioned, a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) analysis of 2014 MCAS scores found that, on average, choice students outperform resident students in the accepting school district. While higher test scores is one reason to accept school choice students, there is also a financial incentive. The receiving district of a school choice student gets $5,000 (plus any additional special education costs) from the district the student is leaving. Therefore, school choice can greatly influence local budgets, both on the paying and the receiving side. In fact, in fiscal 2016, $7.2 million moved between various Cape Cod school districts because of school choice. Whether a family makes the decision based on a school’s academics, sports programs, size, reputation, or any other reason, public education funds follow the student.
While critics may argue that school choice widens the gap between affluent suburban districts and their rural, low-income counterparts, many low-income students would have no choice at all without the program. Also, the competition created to bring in school choice students leads to an entirely more effective education system. Schools are forced to hold themselves to a higher standard in hopes of attracting students from other districts. For example, Nauset Regional High School is the top performing non-charter public high school on the Cape when it comes to English language arts, mathematics, and science MCAS scores. Due to its academic success, the school admits more inter-district choice students than any other Cape high school. In fact, in fiscal year 2017 the district brought in $1,805,467 in school choice tuition. Furthermore, due to its strong performance, Nauset has the lowest churn rate (percent of all students transferring into or out of a school within a school year) of all Cape Cod’s non-charter public high schools.
As the importance of town boundaries diminishes in this new education market, there will likely continue to be an increase in school choice students. In fact, with a United States Secretary of Education who favors choice, more incentives for school competition may be developed at the federal level. As competition continues to grow, there will likely be more regionalization and consolidation as low-performing districts struggle to educate the students that remain in their hometown schools. While regionalization is not an easy process, because according to Superintendent Scott Carpenter of the Monomoy Regional School District, “Everybody wants to hold on to their good ideas, because that’s what’s either drawing kids or retaining kids,” it should be noted that Nauset, the Cape’s top performing non-charter public high school, is regional. Consolidations should lead to a more effective and efficient school system that will offer better education to its students.
Harris Foulkes is a Pioneer Transparency Intern and is a rising freshman at Amherst College where he plans to study economics.