Boston Foundation Study Documents Unmet Demand on School Choice

May 21, 2003

Boston  – A study that maps, for the first time, the variety of school choice options available to students and their families in Massachusetts shows that, while choices exist for many, school entitlements and opportunities are unevenly and inequitably distributed, and significant unmet demand remains.  Further, those who are most at risk – lower-income, minority students – have fewer school choice options than others.

The Boston Foundation study, done by the Center for Education Research & Policy at MassINC, comes at a time when school choice is highly controversial throughout the Commonwealth. Prepared by the researchers at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Education Policy, Mapping School Choice in Massachusetts: Data and Findings 2003 provides benchmark data on an array of schooling choices including charter schools, inter-district and intra-district options, METCO, district-based magnet and pilot schools, private and parochial schools, home-schooling, vocational technical schools, and Chapter 766 private special education schools.

“The issue of school choice has never been more critical.   Students and their families have a right to a wide range of educational choices, and if we want to attract and retain a middle class in Boston, offering parents a choice in schooling is a significant way to rebuild a middle class within the city limits,” said Paul Grogan, President of The Boston Foundation.  “This report, which provides comprehensive data on school choice availability and enrollment trends, enables us to see where we stand, what progress has been made, and what challenges lie before us.  It gives us a strong foundation from which we can make informed policy decisions.”

The study was released at an event today at the Boston Foundation focused on exploring strategies for expanding school choice without financially undermining the mainstream public schools during a time of severe budget crisis.   The event included a presentation by Kathryn A. McDermott, Associate Director of the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on the statewide study.  Dr. Howard L. Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, then talked about the national map of school choice, highlighting promising trends.  As the former Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, Dr. Fuller brought school reform to the Milwaukee area, and continues to lead the national dialogue on charter schools, school choice, and educational reform.

Dr. Fuller’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion on the impact and policy implications of school choice, moderated by S. Paul Reville, Executive Director of the Center for Education Research & Policy at MassINC and lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and including; James A. Caradonio, Superintendent of Worcester Public Schools; James A. Peyser, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education and Chairman of the Educational Management Audit Council; and Theodore R. Sizer, Chairman Emeritus of the Coalition for Essential Schools and Visiting Professor of Education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

“There is no more urgent and divisive topic in educational policy than school choice, yet the basic evidence on who is choosing and where they are going has not been available to policymakers,” said Mr. Reville.  “This study will play an important role in informing and deepening the major, upcoming policy conversations on city and state school choice options and their implications for access, equity and excellence.”

Both nationally and at the state level, school choice has been touted as a promising education reform strategy for a range of reasons.   In Massachusetts, there have been recent calls for a charter school moratorium, dissatisfaction with school finance formulas, demands for tuition reimbursements, and complaints about “creaming” the most easily educated students from mainstream districts.  In the current context of severe state and national budget constraints, these tensions have heightened.

While at least one in four Massachusetts students are in a school setting over which their families exercised some form of choice, there are no systems currently in place to ensure that choice is evenly distributed.   In fact, school choice options are limited by factors such as geography and family income, with low-income and minority students most often under-represented in school choice participation.  From a geographic perspective, academic options such as METCO and charter schools are not uniformly available to all families: METCO serves on two urban districts (Boston and Springfield), while charter schools generally serve only urban areas.  Families with economic means are able to move, thus exacerbating the inequality of opportunity.

The demand for school choice options far exceeds the current capacity for choice, with long waitlists for METCO and many charter schools.   Magnet and exam schools also experience high demand, resulting in intense competition for continually over-subscribed spaces.  In fact, METCO maintains a waitlist of at least 10,000 students and an average wait of five years; Boston’s four vocational schools received almost twice as many applications as they have spaces; charter schools have waiting lists throughout the state; and in the Boston area, waiting lists exceed enrollment in a quarter of the charter schools.

The financial impact of school choice on school districts has been found to vary, depending on the location patterns of charter schools, the availability of inter-district choice options, parent inclination, and the availability of home schooling and private school options.   As a general rule, lower-income districts are more likely to lose tuition income than wealthier ones, since students tend to move towards more affluent districts when participating in inter-district choice.

Massachusetts is expected to face a stiff challenge in meeting the mandated expansion of intra-district, and potentially inter-district, choice under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.  In many cases, districts lack sufficient intra-district options to accommodate students wishing to transfer.   In Boston, for example, 44 schools with 22,500 students were categorized as under-performing for the second year; if this status persists, these students will be eligible to choose another district school – a number that far exceeds available intra-district spaces.

Bright spots in this picture are Massachusetts’ vocational and special education choice systems, which provide students with comprehensive and equitable options.  As models, these systems demonstrate the viability of developing policy that would expand school choice options to all students on a systemic basis.  Of the state’s 206 operational town districts, 82% are members of regional vocational-technical schools, and Boston-area students have particularly high access, with the option to attend 23.2% of the state’s 73 vocational technical schools.  With its Chapter 766 law, Massachusetts has been a forerunner in making special education opportunities available, and has played a national leadership role in promoting the expansion of these entitlements.

In the area of private and parochial schools, the study found that the Boston area has a larger proportion of its students in private schools than the statewide average (18% vs. 12.4%).   Of the Boston-area students attending private schools, fully 76.7% attend Catholic schools.  As to racial and ethnic difference, the study shows that Hispanic and Black students are less likely to attend private schools statewide and in Boston area.

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The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, has an endowment of more than $550 million and made grants of  $53.7 million to nonprofit organizations last year. The Boston Foundation is made up of 750 separate charitable funds, which have been established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a civic leader, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to build community. For more information about the Boston Foundation and its grantmaking, visit, or call 617-338-1700.

The Center for Education Research & Policy at MassINC is dedicated to developing a public agenda that informs and promotes significant improvement of public education in Massachusetts.   Applying nonpartisan, independent research, journalism and civic engagement, the Center is creating a civic space to foster thoughtful public discourse to inform and shape effective policy.