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Editorial: An unfinished experiment with school choice, charter funding

The idea that competition drives innovation and chases out inefficiency is revered in America. Advocates of the 1993 Education Reform Act that created charter schools in Massachusetts, and of the 1991 law that launched school choice, rhapsodized about it.

Take down boundaries between school districts, they argued, and give children of low-income families the ability already possessed by affluent families to enroll in schools best suited to their needs.

Grant education consumers the freedom to choose, they held, and public schools would be compelled to improve to retain students.

Oddly, two decades after school choice and charter schools debuted, only a few studies have examined their consequences.

In a Gazette story Friday, former state education secretary Paul Reville suggested the lack of follow-up leaves an aging experiment incomplete. “As with a lot of notions about schools, it was assumed that (choice) would drive up quality and be all positive,” said Reville, now a professor at Harvard University. “But in a public education system, a lot of conflicts develop.”

The main conflict, of course, is over money.

As the Gazette’s two-part series “The Cost of Choice” showed, the ability of students to enroll outside their home districts benefits some schools financially and costs others. For years, legislators have been working to adjust funding formulas to make these money transfers more fair without undoing the principle of school choice or charters — so far without full success.

It is time for the Legislature to revisit the financial underpinnings of choice and charters to make sure they are not having unintended consequences.

Both programs are important today and must be preserved. They give families worthwhile choices and may well be spurring improvements within schools that see the need to remain attractive choices for students, now that families which cannot afford private school tuition are no longer held captive.

Still, consider the plight of the Easthampton schools. In the five years reviewed by Gazette reporters Kristin Palpini and Barbara Solow, the city paid $7.4 million to cover the cost of educating Easthampton students through school choice or charters. In that time, it received $2 million from outside districts sending students into Easthampton classrooms.

That $5.4 million difference leaves Easthampton in a tough position, and was part of the reason it sought, but failed, to secure added revenue through a tax override last year.

Families that decided to send students outside the city tell Easthampton administrators they want modern language instruction in earlier grades and more up-to-date educational technology. But to a large degree, the district doesn’t have the money it needs to respond to competition with its own innovation.

The city’s new high school should help, but it was financed through a one-time tax override unrelated to choice, charters or normal school operations.

Meantime, state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, is working to relieve a unfair burden on rural schools. A bill he has filed would peg charter school tuition at the per-pupil cost of rural elementary schools, rather than at the typically higher costs in rural secondary school districts.

Kip Fonsh, chairman of the Amherst Regional School Committee, questions the wisdom of public policy that has the effect of leaving some schools less able to pay for their programs, let alone improve them.

Back in 1993, lawmakers congratulated themselves for shaking things up in public education. By adding charters to the existing option of school choice, they sought to improve public education as a whole. Now, they must pinpoint what hasn’t worked as planned and make it right.

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