Newton may soon join the state’s Interdistrict School Choice program, with the city searching for new school funding sources and the program offering thousands of dollars per student the city accepts into its schools.
All districts must enroll in the School Choice program but can then opt out.
“We’ve always opted out, so this is new for us,” Assistant Superintendent Liam Hurley said to the School Committee Monday night.
Hurley, accompanied by officials from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, gave a presentation on the program to the School Committee highlighting the financial benefits it could bring the Newton school district.
How it works
The state’s Inter-district School Choice program allows families to enroll their kids in schools outside their community. The school district where the child lives pays tuition—currently set at $5,000 per student per school year—to the school district in which the child attends school.
Special education students receive a special education increment added to that $5,000.
“Districts may limit participation by accepting a certain number of students, certain grades or even by school,” Hurley said.
If a district has more Inter-district School Choice students trying to get into that district than there are open seats in that district, the open seats must be given to applicants at random. Schools are not allowed to discriminate in any way when accepting School Choice students.
Preferential placement can only be given to siblings of students already in, or being accepted into, the district.
School Choice funding comes directly out of the state’s Chapter 70 funding, not out of a school’s operating budget. Money is reimbursed to the sender district through Chapter 70. When a student enrolls out-of-district, the sending district provides transportation.
The state’s Circuit Breaker funding program helps pay added costs (on top of the $5,000) for special needs students. That is paid by the sender school district and reimbursed by the state.
School Choice money that goes to a district must be managed in a revolving account by that district’s school committee.
Is it right for Newton?
Newton has opted out of School Choice every year, but the Newton School Committee is now considering joining the program because of the financial benefit it could bring the city.
Newton has seen a decline in public school enrollment in recent years, exacerbated by parents’ frustrations over the district’s COVID-19 pandemic policies. In fact, there’s an ongoing debate about what to do with two partially-full schools.
Currently, Hurley said, there are 21 students who live in Newton but attend school in other districts through School Choice. But all of those students attend virtual academies. They’re not actually being transported to other districts.
Hurley emphasized that those students’ tuition at those virtual academies is paid with Chapter 70 funding, so it doesn’t come out of Newton’s operating budget.
If Newton opts to join School Choice for the 2024-2025 academic year, the city will get $5,000 per student transferring into Newton.
Committee member Rajeev Parlikar said he was concerned about the program’s reliance on the state’s Circuit Breaker program, which helps school districts offset the cost of special education services.
“We’ve been hurt by Circuit Breaker before, in the sense of when refunds come in Circuit Breaker and are paid out,” Parlikar said. “So it does seem like we would be responsible for an out-of-district placement payment and somewhat at the mercy—both us and the sending district—of Circuit Breaker before we would get any kind of reimbursement for it.”
But with School Choice, Newton would not be eligible for Circuit Breaker for students it sends to other districts, Rob O’Donnell, DESE’s director of school finance, said. Circuit Breaker reimbursement goes to the sender district.
Reimbursement for Newton accepting special education students via School Choice would come through the School Choice program. And the district would submit a “special education increment form” for tuition reimbursement before the end of the fiscal year.
“If this was a student you have had for some period of time—say it wasn’t the first year a student was placed in out-of-district placement–we would use an estimated tuition cost for that student for the balance of the fiscal year,” McDonnell said. “So you would be reimbursed earlier on than the end of the year for that student, and then we would true up the cost at the end of the year once we got the special ed increment claim from you at the end of the year.”
School Choice money coming to Newton would go to the city, not directly to its school department budget, McDonnell said. But the city must put the funds into a revolving account that would be available to the School Committee.
What about kids from out-of-district enrolled in Newton because their parent works for the district?
If Newton adopts School Choice, Hurley said, staff would be expected to apply for School Choice for their kids. Under School Choice, a child of an employee would be able to remain in Newton schools through graduation even if the parent leaves their job at the district.
“If a child of an employee does not gain acceptance through Choice, we would still expect these children to get into Newton public schools with kind of the same process we have now, which is space available selection process,” Hurley explained. “We certainly cannot give any staff children preference through the School Choice process, but there would be a secondary avenue for these kids to get into Newton.”
Much more to discuss
Monday’s presentation brought a host of new questions from School Committee members—about how School Choice works relative to Boston’s METCO program, how a lottery system works when siblings are involved, how reimbursement is handled and more.
“I think we need time to fully understand the financial picture of this program,” Committee member Anping Shen said.
Superintendent Anna Nolin said the Finance Committee supports joining School Choice and urged the School Committee to think about the long-term financial benefits the program can bring and how those benefits can help with big initiatives the district is planning.
“We are going to have to have a lot of conversations about available resources, and this is one way that additional resources can come into the district,” Nolin said. “And we already have students opting into our district with no reimbursement for their time here.”
The School Committee is set to discuss School Choice at its Jan. 22 meeting, and a report on class size and enrollment is expected on Feb. 5.
After another presentation on Feb. 6 and a public hearing on April 1, the School Committee is set to vote on School Choice on April 4.