School Choice Opens Options Beyond District Schools

What is school choice?

All school districts must allow children who live within their districts to attend their schools, but not all parents want their children to go to those schools.

The Massachusetts inter-district school choice law, enacted in 1991, allows parents to send their children to public schools outside of the communities in which they live.

Don’t confuse this with “in-district school choice,” such as in Boston, which allows families to decide which school their children will attend within a district.

What’s the point?

School choice was taken from the concept that monopolies produce bad products and that competition forces businesses to perform at their best, according to Michael Caffi, former vice chairman of the Rockport School Committee, in a presentation called A Citizen’s Guide to School Choice.

School choice incorporates that idea into the notion that a student’s ability to switch among school districts will promote better schools and education programs.

Families with means have always had the ability to choose schools and districts, by moving.

Inter-district school choice provides an option for parents who don’t want their children attending public school in their home district but can’t afford to move to a higher-cost district.



How many students participate?

During the 2013-14 school year, 13,862 students attended schools outside their home district, or about 1.5 percent of all public school enrollment in Massachusetts, according to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This figure doesn’t include students who participate in METCO, which buses non-white students from Boston and Springfield to suburban districts.

How does a student enroll in another district?

In order to enroll outside of their home district, a student’s parent/guardian should contact the district in which they would like their child to enroll to enroll. Districts generally require students to submit an application.

A home district does not have to approve a child’s admission into another district. Even if the home district is not a school choice receiving district, students may apply to be placed in a different district.

School districts allow accepted students to attend school in that district until graduation.

Districts may not discriminate on the basis of academic achievement, race, color, national origin, creed, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special need, or proficiency in the English language or a foreign language. They may deny a student based on other factors, however, such as discipline problems.

What’s the difference between a sending district and a receiving district?

When resident children attend school in other cities or towns, the home district is a sending district.

Districts that accept non-resident students into their school districts are receiving districts.

Districts do not have to send students in order to receive students, or vice versa. Individual school committees decide if they would like receive students.

What districts participate?

Each year, school committees consider whether their district will continue as part of the school choice program. Not all school districts accept out-of-district students.

For the 2013-14 school year, there were 182 receiving districts and 290 sending districts. View each school district’s school choice receiving status.

Here is a map of what school choice looked like in 2011:

(Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)

(Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)

Who pays for students opting to use school choice?

Sending districts pay tuition to the receiving district for each student. The money for tuition comes from a district’s state aid.

The state deposits money that would otherwise go to the the sending district’s Chapter 70 aid into the School Choice Tuition Trust Fund. The state treasurer distributes funds to receiving districts based on a district’s number of non-resident students.

Districts determine their own school choice tuition rates, for regular or vocational programs. According to the Department of Education, “FY14 school choice tuition rates are set at 75 percent of the FY13 operating cost per full-time equivalent pupil for the receiving school district, with a cap of $5,000.”

Some school districts welcome the program because participation brings in thousands of dollars in school funding to the district. Districts may use the money to supplement the annual budget and avoid cuts.

A district summary workbook from DESE shows the annual estimates and monthly payments for each district throughout the year.

Below is a graph of total school choice participation and expenditure in the state 2005-2014:

School Choice Trends In Enrollment And Tuition (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)

School Choice Trends In Enrollment And Tuition (Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education)

Are resident students denied space due to school choice students?


If more students apply than there are spaces available, the district will hold a lottery to select which students they will admit. If a district has fewer applicants than it has seats for school choice students, it may choose to accept students at any time during the school year.

If a child who currently attends school in the districts has siblings apply, the siblings will receive preference in the admissions lottery.

Are special education students eligible to participate?

Yes. A district may not bar a student from enrolling based on mental or physical disability.

The Department of Education writes, “The actual special education cost for each pupil with an individualized education plan is paid in full by the sending district.”

How does transportation work?

Transportation is not provided for students attending school outside of their home district. Parents/guardians are responsible for transporting their child to and from school.


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