School Committee opts to stay out of inter-district program
By Elizabeth Sheeran
The doors of Somerville’s public schools will remain closed to students from other school districts.
The School Committee this week voted to again opt out of offering inter-district school choice during the 2012-2013 school year, as it has done consistently since Massachusetts introduced statewide school choice two decades ago.
Under the program, if school districts accept non-resident students, the state will transfer money from the district where a student lives to the district where the student goes to school. In theory the transfer equals 75 percent of the host district’s spending per pupil, but it’s capped at $5,000, which in Somerville puts it down closer to 30 percent of spending. School Committee members said that makes it impractical for the city to participate, especially without a lot of classroom space to spare.
“In theory it’s a wonderful program, and I would love to have other students here and vice versa. But the numbers and the financing just don’t work for us,” said School Committee Member Mark Niedergang. “We’d be exposing ourselves to huge financial liability, so we just can’t do it.”
At Monday evening’s mandatory public hearing on the question, Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said Somerville isn’t alone among school districts that choose to opt out of school choice. He said few urban communities accept non-residents under the inter-district school choice program, which is distinct from options for vocational education, or from METCO, which allows urban youth to go to suburban schools.
Around 13,000 students in Massachusetts (about 1.3 percent) go to schools outside their home district under the inter-district school choice program. That number has steadily increased, and the number of districts offering school choice has doubled over the past 15 years, to 174 today, but very few are inside the 128 loop. This side of Boston, you’d have to go as far as Burlington to find a participating school district.
According to Roger Hatch of the state Department of Education, districts that offer school choice aren’t all the same. But most have excess capacity, so it makes sense for them to take in additional students, since the extra funds they bring in can help cover fixed costs, the same way that hotels will offer discounts on unsold rooms rather than have them go unoccupied.
And many small districts can’t do everything they want to do without more students. “There are a lot of cases where doing school choice allows a district to offer a program that they might not be able to do locally with just their own kids,” said Hatch. He cited the Berkeley district, which didn’t have enough students to hire a teacher for full-day kindergarten without students from neighboring districts that came in under the school choice program.
But since Somerville isn’t exactly grappling with a shortage of students or too many empty seats, the city has little reason to offer inter-district school choice. No members of the public chose to speak at the hearing. And even though Somerville residents can still send their kids to other districts that offer school choice – even if Somerville doesn’t – not a single Somerville student is currently enrolled in another district under the program.