For an example of how a well-intentioned state government initiative can go awry, one need look no further than Massachusetts' vaunted school choice program, instituted in 1991. As implemented, it gave dissatisfied parents the option of sending their child away from their home district to one that offered, in their opinion, a higher-quality or more appropriate education. Along with the student came $5,000 in education fees transferred from their home district to the new one.
This week is School Choice Week in Massachusetts, as proclaimed by Governor Baker, and certainly many students have benefited from choice over the years. But the inherent flaws underlying the school choice idea have become all too apparent at the practical level. Taking precious education dollars away away from school districts with each student who went out the door only prevents districts from improving enough to keep students from leaving. Urban districts suffered most, as parents preferred sending their children to wealthier suburban schools — thus creating a vicious cycle.
At the other end, destination schools discovered that the $5,000-per-student remuneration mandated by the state didn't fully cover the cost of educating that student. The more money it spent on each student, the worse the discrepancy — causing many in destination districts to complain they were subsidizing the educations of students from other communities. Many districts have nonetheless welcomed imported students to lower overall costs, especially if there are empty seats to be filled. While districts can decide whether or not to accept students, donor districts cannot stop them from leaving.
Thanks to school choice, Berkshire County's two cities, North Adams and Pittsfield, have been losing students to smaller, more financially well-off surrounding districts. Each student that transfers from Pittsfield to, say, Lenox, incrementally penalizes the Pittsfield Public Schools, which have to try to remain attractive enough to retain remaining students while doing so with less money. Those who do (or must) remain are harmed by an increasing lack of diversity among the student body.
School choice can better benefit the state if changes are made to the program to offset the unintended consequences of the original program. Possible remedies include capping the number of students that can be allowed to leave a district. Along with this measure, the amount of per-student remuneration to the receiving district should better reflect education costs.
Most important, though, is to minimize the penalty to schools like those in Pittsfield in North Adams by allowing them to keep all or at least a portion of the education money that disappears with each departing student. Only then can a donor district have a fighting chance to better itself and thus stem the outward flow. Were they given that hand up, the deleterious effects of school choice and the inequality of educational offerings that called for it in the first place would begin to disappear.
Increased education funding across the board would, of course, address issues that school choice is awkwardly trying to address. For many of the haves choice, is working well. Unfortunately, it is not working so well for the have-nots, who also have the least political clout.