Public School Choice Grows in Massachusetts

Published October 1, 2005

An obscure Massachusetts law passed in 1991 enabling students to attend public schools outside the district designated for them by the government is beginning to force public schools across the Bay State to fight with each other for enrollment.

During the 2004-05 school year, more than 9,000 K-12 students took advantage of the interdistrict choice program–up from 6,000 a decade ago and 1,000 in the 1991-92 school year, the program’s first. More schools are taking part as well: In 1991, only 32 schools accepted students from outside their district, but last year, 149 of the state’s 328 public school districts welcomed them.

Year Students Exercising Interdistrict Choice % Increase Total Public School Enrollment % Exercising Choice as Share of Total Enrollment
1995-96 6,039   900,215 0.67%
1996-97 6,506 7.75% 918,203 0.71%
1997-98 6,867 5.55% 930,780 0.74%
1998-99 7,204 4.91% 943,433 0.76%
1999-00 7,343 1.92% 951,886 0.77%
2000-01 7,292 -0.69% 958,977 0.76%
2001-02 7,560 3.68% 952,822 0.79%
2002-03 8,085 6.94% 960,186 0.84%
2003-04 8,869 9.70% 957,926 0.93%
2004-2005 9,285 4.68% 952,293 0.98%
% Increase, 1995-2005, 53.76%
Between 1995 and 2005, the number of students participating in Massachusetts’ public school choice program increased 53.76 percent, from 6,039 to 9,285. Approximately 1 percent of the state’s public school students exercised choice in the 2004-05 school year.

“The program has grown, and that shows there is a growing demand to change schools,” said David Armor, who with Brett Peiser cowrote a study of Massachusetts’ interdistrict choice program in 1997.

Choices Are Limited

The law restricts interdistrict choice to 2 percent of all public school students and does not provide transportation to those who choose it. Students in the Boston and Springfield metro areas have their own program, known as METCO. Created in 1966, the program aims to expand opportunities for students in large urban districts and reduce racial imbalance in suburban districts. It also provides tutoring services and transportation for students selected for the program.

About 3,000 students participated in METCO last year, and another 16,000 are currently on a waiting list, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site.

While an increasing number of Massachusetts parents are taking advantage of interdistrict choice, and 23,000 children in the state are attending charter schools, only 3 percent of students statewide choose to attend a public school other than the one designated for them by the government. Massachusetts does not have tax credits or vouchers, and it does not require homeschooled students to report to their home districts.

Having a choice of public schools is nice, said David Salisbury, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, but given the cap on the number of students who can participate and the fact that schools can reject students, it bears little resemblance to true free-market competition.

“It’s like saying you can choose different post offices,” Salisbury explained. “It’s a part–but only a part–of creating a competitive education industry. It’s not an indication that people don’t want choice, [but] an indication that there are relatively few choices.”

Districts Seek Students

One district that has always accepted students from outside is the Boston suburb of Avon. Getting students from other districts “provides us with ethnic and cultural richness,” Avon Public Schools System Superintendent Margaret Frieswyk said. “It also helps us fill empty seats and provides a vital revenue stream for the district.”

Under the law, the student’s home district sends 75 percent of the cost of tuition, up to a maximum of $5,000, to the receiving district. The amount of funding following special-needs students to their new districts is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Last year, 145 of Avon’s 750 students came from other districts, mostly to attend the high school. Only one Avon resident attended another district’s school, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Students Seek Choices

Another district welcoming students from outside is the Clinton Public School System, a 2,000-student district located 35 miles west of Boston. Last year, Clinton received 120 students from other districts and sent 41 of its resident students elsewhere.

Clinton Superintendent Gerry Gaw said the funds that follow students are significant for his small district. Without them, he says, the district couldn’t maintain its 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio and might even have to lay off staff.

Gaw said parents from outside Clinton choose it for a variety of reasons.

“For some, it’s a matter of convenience,” said Gaw, speaking of students who live in other districts close by, or whose parents work in or near Clinton. Others choose it for the small class sizes and because “our facilities and fields are spectacular.” He noted most of the facilities are either new or have been remodeled in the past decade.

Frieswyk said her district’s size might make it attractive to some parents, particularly those who like the “personal attention” students there can receive.

Size Matters

Armor said a school district’s size plays a role in the impact interdistrict choice has on it.

“In our earlier study, we saw that the program affected different kinds of schools differently, and I have no reason to believe that this dynamic has changed. In large districts, where the students who left constituted only a small percentage, there was no substantial effect. They saw no need to change,” he explained.

“It did, however, have a substantial effect on the smaller school district,” Armor continued. “They would have meetings and discussions to find out why some students left. They were shocked and weren’t aware that some were unhappy with what they offered. In response, they made changes to keep and attract students.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

For more information …

David Armor’s 1997 case study of the Massachusetts interdistrict choice program, “Competition in Education: A Case Study of Interdistrict Choice,” published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, is available online at

Updates published by the Pioneer Institute in 1990 also are available online, at (part 1) and (part 2).