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Local lawmakers seek to lessen choice’s impact on sending schools

School choice and charter school options affect western Massachusetts communities differently than they do in the eastern part of the state, and local legislators are filing bills that aim to correct the imbalance.

This year, John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, filed three bills seeking to make alterations to educational option programs. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Legislature’s educational committee is being encouraged to do away with a spending cap on charter schools in poorly performing districts.

Here is what local legislators are proposing:

■ An act to establish a school choice “circuit breaker.” This bill, filed by Scibak, seeks reimbursement from the state for school districts that lose more than 5 percent of the students in a given grade or 10 percent of the student population as a whole to school choice in any given year. Under the bill, the sending school district would recoup half of tuition costs.

This is around the fourth time Scibak has filed the bill. He said he got the idea for the proposal from looking at the “circuit breaker” money allotted to schools for special needs education, a state funding source that provides reimbursement to districts with an abundance of special needs students. Scibak said the same kind of one-year financial cushion could benefit towns where school finances are negatively affected by school choice.

“It’s meant to soften the blow,” he said. “It’s only a year of relief, but it would help them to deal with budgets in a more predictable way.”

Scibak said the bill hasn’t gained much traction and that may be due to the fact that the legislation would create another financial obligation for the state.

“It’s a likely scenario that if we can’t fund the circuit breaker for special education, do you want to create a second circuit breaker account,” Scibak said.

■ An act to increase accountability in school choice reimbursement. Scibak said although this bill is also a refile, he thinks it has a good chance of passing this time, mostly because it would affect few districts and wouldn’t cost anything.

If approved, the legislation would require a school choice receiving district to inform the sending district if the choice student transferred or dropped out of school. Now, the receiving district notifies the state when this occurs, but news can be slow in reaching the sending district. For financial reasons, the sending district would want to know about the change in the student’s education immediately.

Scibak said he filed the bill after this scenario unfolded in Easthampton a few years ago, causing a mess of red tape for the district and delaying reimbursement.

“I don’t think it was deliberate,” Scibak said of the lax communication. “The sending school just has more of a vested interest in making sure the money is spent at the right school.”

■ An act relative to education funding for charter schools. Filed by Kulik, this piece of legislation seeks to make compensation from regional school districts to charter schools more equitable.

The inequality of tuition payments became clear to Kulik when a member of the Pelham Finance Committee contacted him about a year ago. The committee member said because of the way charter school tuition is calculated, Pelham, as well as other small towns in regional school districts, was paying far more than its fair share to educate children out of district.

Charter school tuition is based on the per-pupil cost of education in the sending town. The idea is to have the charter tuition be comparable to the cost of educating a student in his home district. Small towns typically have higher per pupil expenditures than larger communities because although there are fewer students, there are some school operating costs that aren’t affected by enrollment, like heating or maintenance, which drive up the overall per-pupil cost.

“It’s a matter of scale,” Kulik said. “It just seems to be found money for the charter school because it’s way more than they should expect for a student.”

In most school districts, the per-pupil cost is based on educating children in kindergarten through Grade 12. But in a regional district there are two per pupil costs: one when the child is being educated at the in-town elementary school and another when that child moves on to attend the regional middle and high schools.

Typically, once a student graduates from elementary school and enters the regional school system, the per-pupil cost of education increases. Last school year in Pelham, for example, it cost about $14,600 to educate an elementary school student and $18,000 to educate a student in the regional schools. Both these tuition rates were higher than the state’s average per-pupil expenditure, $13,700.

Kulik’s bill would base charter school tuition from regional school students on the cost of educating that student in his or her local elementary school — not the more expensive regional middle and high schools — regardless of the student’s grade.

Kulik said his bill received a favorable review by the Legislature last year, but the session expired before the proposal could be approved. He hopes this year there will be enough time to get the bill passed.

“There’s no known opposition I’m aware of,” Kulik said. “I think the bill might get all the way through the process this time.”

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