Soundings : Musical classroom chairs
School choice has been a matter of law in Massachusetts since 1991, but it has begun to catch on here only in the last few years. A week from today, when some 1,300 students head to Island elementary schools for their first day of the new term, nearly 10 percent of them will be attending a school that's not in the town where they live.
This stands in stark contrast with the statewide picture. Across the commonwealth last year, some 11,300 students out of a total population of 940,000 attended schools outside their districts through the school choice program. That's closer to one percent than to the Vineyard's 10.
Count it as one more of the many ways in which life on the Vineyard marches to its own unique drummer.
In the 1997-98 school year, just three Island students were transferred under the school choice program. That year, two students from Edgartown and one from Oak Bluffs transferred into the up-Island school district. The number of students in the school choice program increased to 21 in the 2000-01 academic year, climbed to about 100 students in 2003-04, and over the past three years has stabilized around the 120 mark.
School choice numbers have grown across Massachusetts over the past decade, too, but by a factor of less than two - nothing like the Vineyard's 40-fold increase. The Island superintendent's office hasn't tried to analyze this local trend, but it's most likely a combination of pedagogy and family circumstances. Parents in some cases are choosing the school they believe has the best program for their children - and in other cases, the school most convenient to where they work.
No doubt the Island's affordable housing crisis - which sends families careening from rental to rental as the seasons change - also contributes a degree of churn which results in school choice transfers. Families can use choose to keep their children in familiar school settings even when their homes are uprooted.
Within the Island statistics lies an interesting trend. From fiscal 1998 through 2002, only the up-Island school district saw a net influx of school choice students. But in the 2003-2004 academic year, something changed: The Oak Bluffs School, which in the previous five years had seen a net loss of 26 students through school choice, turned the pattern around and tipped it the other way. That year, Oak Bluffs received 29.21 students and sent 26.42 away.
(I know, talking about fractions of a student sounds silly, but the district keeps close tabs on mid-year transfers, because real money is involved.)
Ever since the 2003-2004 year, the Oak Bluffs School has been a net receiver of students transferring in from other towns. Recently, the Oak Bluffs School has eclipsed the up-Island regional district as the most popular school of choice on the Vineyard: last year, the school received 51.4 transfer students, a whopping 41 percent of all the Island kids in the school choice program.
Municipal money follows the students according to a formula that is, by Massachusetts standards, refreshingly simple. In most cases, the sending town pays the receiving school $5,000 in tuition for each full-year student transferred. When specific costs are associated with special education needs, the sending town pays them as well.
Last year the Oak Bluffs School - the net winner in the school choice transfer program - received $314,055 in tuition from its neighbor towns. Oak Bluffs paid out $164,807 for the 27.9 students who transferred away. That's a net gain of $149,259 for the school year.
Across the Island, the school choice program is a zero-sum game, because students are simply shuffling among the elementary schools. And it's important to understand that a family's home district has no power to dispute a transfer request. The "choice" in school choice lies finally with the receiving school, which has the right to limit the numbers of students it accept.
Making your Island school attractive to transfer students is arguably a good strategy in this era of declining enrollments and tight municipal budgets. Granted, no Island school comes anywhere near to delivering a year of education for $5,000 per pupil. But cost-per-pupil statistics are deceptive. Adding a student or two into a classroom that's already staffed often costs little more than the expense of added textbooks and supplies. If adding students would tip a class to a size that incurs new personnel costs, the receiving school can simply decline more transfers.
A gain of $150,000 might seem paltry against the backdrop of an Island school budget, but from a principal's perspective, this is a substantial sum. Bear in mind that less than 10 percent of the typical public school budget involves money over which an administrator has real control. Salaries and benefits are set by contract, and the costs of heating and lighting your building are hardly negotiable.
The popularity of the school choice program here reminds us that it's a small Island, and that in some respects our elementary schools already function as parts of a regional district.
Meanwhile, that $5,000 tuition fee hasn't been adjusted by the state legislature since school choice became law almost two decades ago. The guess here is that it's still enough to motivate schools to do what the law intended: compete for students and give their families meaningful educational choices.