School Choice public hearing sees public skepticism and concern

The School Committee held a public hearing on whether or not Newton should join the state’s Inter-district School Choice program, with the committee set to cast its vote on May 6.

Community members who showed up and commented were not supportive of the idea to join, citing potential pitfalls and unknown impacts despite possible financial benefits the program could bring.

The conversation about School Choice has been guided by Superintendent Anna Nolin this year, but state law requires community school boards to vote on School Choice every year.

“While I was credited with the idea for School Choice, it’s not mine,” Nolin said at the start of the hearing.

Newton has always opted to stay out of the program, but as the district looks at low enrollment and financial forecasts, the Newton School Committee has kept the conversation about School Choice open for more discussion.

Nolin said her senior administration team would have a recommendation for the School Committee this Friday.

“My job as the schools superintendent is to bring forward every potential resource there is for the school system, and the School Committee has to make their decisions based on their assessment of those programs and whether those programs and resources are a good fit for the system,” Nolin said.

Much of the commentary from residents and other community members revolved around potential negative impacts joining the program could bring.

Christine Dutt, who has two kids in Newton’s public schools, said the $5,000 per student the city would get for being in School Choice (with increments added for special education students) wouldn’t be worth the effort and potential problems the program could bring.

“And as a matter of principle and policy, students are not revenue sources or cost drivers,” Dutt said. “They’re people and unique learners.”

Teacher Ryan Normandin then talked about how he grew up in Uxbridge and said his high school was sending a lot of students to other districts, which cost Uxbridge a lot of money and eroded the sense of community among that district’s families.

“The School Choice money associated with School Choice students that I keep hearing people discuss is not free,” Normandin said. “They are money and people being taken from another district—usually a poorer district that doesn’t have a half-billion-dollar budget—that needs them.”

Normandin added that he worried neighboring communities would notice Newton being the only one in the School Choice program and opt in themselves, creating a ripple effect that has poorer communities emptying their budgets to send kids out-of-district.

“I commend the superintendent and School Committee for recognizing that the solution to our budget problems is not more cutting but more funding,” Normandin said. “But I really hope we can solve Newton’s problems without exacerbating the problems of districts like Uxbridge.”

Margie Ross Decter spoke next, representing the League of Women Voters, asked the School Committee to vote to not join School Choice for the 2024-2025 school year so the public can get more information, especially since the administration’s recommendation won’t come out until Friday.

“We do not believe that enough time or information has been given to school families and the general public to adequately evaluate the pros and cons of joining School Choice,” she said.

Then resident William Heck asked a series of questions about particular scenarios, such as what happens when a student with no special education IEP transfers to Newton and Newton schools then determine they need an IEP, as well as what happens when a student who lives far away has an emergency.

The School Committee did not respond to any of the commenters or questions. But judging by the intensity of public reaction to School Choice, there will be a lot to consider in the coming days as the committee approaches a vote on May 6.

Wednesday’s public hearing is on YouTube.