Why School Choice doesn’t completely cover per-student cost

According to the Massachusetts Department of Secondary Education, it costs nearly $24,397 a year to educate a student in Newton. But the Inter-district School Choice program the city may enter into would only reimburse the city $5,000 for every out-of-district student sent into Newton.

What’s the deal?

There have been lots of questions about School Choice from parents since the School Committee announced that the district may be joining the program, and the most common question is why the full amount of per-student cost isn’t paid by the outside district sending a student to Newton.

“The School Choice program is not meant to bring in the full cost of per-pupil into the district. It’s meant to be an empty seat program,” Superintendent Anna Nolin pointed out at a recent School Committee discussion on School Choice.

“To use a bus metaphor, if there’s a bus that we own and there are 50 or 70 seats filled, we’ve already paid for the gas and the driver and the repair and parking and all of those things,” Nolin explained. “So there are 20 extra seats. The School Choice program works the same way.”

School Choice involves filling empty spots in classrooms with students without building a new school or hiring teachers to fit those School Choice transfers in, so even though Newton doesn’t get the full $24,397 per-student cost as tuition, the $5,000 in per-student tuition is still money that adds to the overall budget.

For students with special needs with an individualized education plan (IEP), an incremental amount is added to that $5,000 to offset extra costs associated with special education.

Per-student cost factors in all costs associated with schools divided up by the number of combined enrolled students, and that includes cost of utilities in the buildings, cost of plowing the parking lots, maintaining computer networks and other things that are already paid for.

“Obviously we want as many dollars as we can get for every student’s attendance, per se, but this is meant to supplement our existing budget,” Nolin said.

If a district has more 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.

Currently, there are 21 students who live in Newton but attend school in other districts through School Choice, Assistant Superintendent Liam Hurley told the School Committee in January. But all of those students attend virtual academies. They’re not actually being transported to other districts.

There will be a public hearing on School Choice on April 23, and the School Committee is set to vote on whether to enlist the district in the program on May 6.