This year, one of ERN CT’s priorities is to foster a substantive dialogue on shared services and interdistrict cooperation. As we’ve previously shared in our Fact Sheet on district regionalization, shared services can create savings and economies of scale, as well as improve student opportunities.
One thing that is clear in discussions to date is that there cannot be a one size fits all solution on regionalization and district collaboration. Despite our overall small size in comparison to other states, different regions of Connecticut present very different challenges. In the course of these discussions, two questions consistently are raised. (1) Why do some towns have the capacity to give greater educational opportunity than others? And, (2) When schools have extra classroom seats available and face declining enrollment, why shouldn’t students from neighboring towns fill them?
A complementary policy, expanding Connecticut’s Open Choice program, addresses both questions. It aims to increase options for students and address declining enrollment.
What is Open Choice?
Connecticut’s Open Choice program allows students to attend school in any participating district within the region in which they reside. This state program, established in 1996, was designed to enhance diversity among student populations along racial, ethnic, and economic lines. It gives parents the power to select the school that best serves the needs of their individual child. More importantly in the context of regionalization, it creates an alternative for smaller districts with declining enrollment to increase their student numbers and maintain their facilities and staff.
Last year, 49 local school districts and more than 3,000 students participated in the Open Choice program. While Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford students were the most likely to seize the Open Choice opportunity, it is the communities of Avon, Canton, Enfield, Farmington, Plainville, Simsbury, and South Windsor that enrolled more than 100 open Choice students each. Receiving districts opt into this program by offering seats to students from other districts. The state provides financial incentives to encourage their participation. Then, Regional Education Service Centers (RESCs) administer lotteries to determine which students will participate.
Solve the Regional Obstacle: Expand regional participation in open choice and incentivize districts with declining enrollment to absorb additional students.
CT state law currently allows districts in specific regions to participate in the Open Choice program (Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and New London). This law should be clarified to permit all regions to participate in Open Choice. In particular, school districts with excess seats should be encouraged to participate so that they can host students from other districts, increase funding through a new revenue stream and reverse their declining enrollment trend line. For instance it would allow districts with shrinking student populations like Woodbury to educate students from Waterbury where the student population is, in fact, growing.