The Cost of Choice

Posted Sept. 12, 2010, at 8:55 p.m.

One nettlesome issue Orrington faces as it moves toward forming a Regional School Unit with neighboring Dedham illustrates a larger, philosophical dilemma in education. It portends a collision of two forces — taxpayers with no children in school and who are less supportive of paying for education, and parents who want their children to attend the best high school available.

Orrington provides pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade education, then sends its approximately 200 high school students to approved schools on a tuition basis. The town pays the state average per student tuition, which last year was $8,718. But independent schools, such as John Bapst, George Stevens Academy, Foxcroft Academy and others, often charge a 5 percent surcharge in addition to the base tuition.

Previously, Superintendent Allan Snell said, the state reimbursed the town the entire cost of that surcharge. But last year, the state reimbursed just 30 percent of the surcharge. That change made some residents unhappy, because they as taxpayers essentially were underwriting the added expense for each family whose child attended one of the costlier private schools.

The difference between sending students to Brewer High School and John Bapst would have been about $1,400 per student, or as much as $150,000 townwide. The school committee drafted a policy that, if approved, would have required parents to pay the difference in cost between the average tuition rate reimbursed by the state and the higher private school rates.

But then circumstances changed, Mr. Snell explained. In the coming budget year, the state will again reimburse the town all of the private school surcharge. The school committee, which was considering putting the new policy before voters in November, decided to drop it from consideration.

What the town is left with is where the two forces collide. Parents still want school choice, Mr. Snell said. That desire hints at, though is not quite the same as, the national push among some for a school voucher system, where parents are issued a flat amount of money to use as tuition for their children at any school they choose.

But at the same time, the choice Orrington parents enjoy for their high school-age children makes it difficult for the town to budget. Mr. Snell said families have been known to move into town so that they can send their children to John Bapst or George Stevens Academy. Since the town has to budget a cost for each high school student — as opposed to a general cost if the town had its own high school — it sometimes raises more money than needed in a given year, and sometimes raises less.

Superintendent Snell said the cost of school choice has negatively affected what the town provides at the pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. So the cost of choice risks angering taxpayers who previously supported funding education.

It’s a tension that will be seen more often in the coming years.

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