LETTER: Open Choice Program is a Misnomer

To the Editor:

The Wilton Board of Education is being presented with a decision on whether or not to participate in the CT State Open Choice program. This initial decision to participate is where the choice ends, as the program is neither ‘open’ nor a ‘choice.’

Sadly, the program fails in the promise of true school choice. The program is open to all kinds of students; however, racial and ethnic elements are a limiting factor to students, as well as a lottery administered by faceless bureaucrats with the Regional Education Service. Neither the students nor Wilton have any say in who goes where.

The program is not cost-neutral. The money does not follow the child. The sending district keeps half of its ECS grant for each child enrolled in the program. With regard to special needs children, a portion of extra costs is paid by the receiving district (Wilton). The responsibility for holding planning and placement team (PPT) meetings and developing an IEP also belongs to the receiving district (Wilton).

Proponents misleadingly argue students are using “open seats.” As a high-performing school, there is no reason why Wilton needs to keep a seat open or meet a minimum budget. The School Board’s job is to optimize the spend and maximize the education value. Why keep excess open seats? This is a net cost to our district. Westport, for example, receives 67 children. Westport only received $194,159 last year from the state or $2,897 per student. Westport has a per-pupil cost of $22,248, thus the 67 students cost Westport $1,296,517 in 2020 — this does not even include IEP or PPT costs.

Further, Wilton is in the midst of a demographic shift as families flee the cities and new apartment buildings are proposed. Once enrolled, students will attend school in the receiving Open Choice district (Wilton) until high school graduation. That means a decade-plus commitment for kindergartners and younger students. In the future, in order to accommodate a change in Wilton’s own children, the district would need to add net new seats with all the costs and infrastructure requirements entailed.

Alternatively, perhaps the Board should reconsider the financial inequity created by the BOE’s 2013 controversial “pay to play” policy. This policy allows the children of parents, who can afford to pay to participate and try or investigate interests in more extracurricular sports and clubs. Other Wilton children who cannot afford to pay are denied this opportunity to grow, learn and experience. I remind the Board of Education of its duty to the district’s students today and more than a decade in the future to offer the best education while remaining good stewards of the town’s resources and urge them to vote ‘no’ on “Open Choice.”

Wilton has a wonderful history of accepting sponsored children outside the district, and a true School Choice program would be a welcome opportunity for both Wilton and surrounding area students. However, the Open Choice program is a Trojan horse full of cost and places the decision authority of who and for how long a student attends, in the hands of a regional body — abdicating local control is not what the Board of Education is elected to do.

Lisa Pojano

11 COMMENTS

  1. I am a CPA, and the writer of this letter missed an important financial concept. The true cost to the town for filling what would otherwise be an empty, or surplus, seat in a school’s classroom is the “incremental cost.” Incremental costs are expenses incurred by the change: one more student. Incremental costs are variable costs from additional labor and materials necessary for the extra student. After all, we are talking about filling a “surplus” seat. It is easier to explain what variable costs are not: fixed and semi-fixed expenses, such as salaries, benefits, board of ed. administration, utilities, etc. I am sure that the Board of Ed. is aware of this.
    Regarding “Pay or Play for extracurricular sports activities, theoretically students from a family which cannot afford the cost will NOT displace an out-of-town student. It depends on whether discounts or scholarships are offered. I really think this particular policy should be considered separately.
    By the way, an important concept to non-profits and governments is “value for money.” That is, how much good can be done with available funds? The Open Choice program is NOT about finances, but about education.
    We are proud of our school system in Wilton. It IS worthwhile to offer enrollment in an excellent shool system to any interested parent and student!

  2. Christine, I generally understand your explanation but can you clarify why an interested parent and friend who lives in an adjacent Connecticut town who wants to put their child in Wilton schools is being asked to pay $20,000 per child, per year ? If there is an “empty or surplus seat in a school’s classroom”, why the $20,000 charge per child for this person but an Open Choice student, the price is $0 ? Unless I am mistaken, based on your information – shouldn’t it be $0 for each student who attends a Wilton school but does not live in Wilton, until the “surplus” seats are filled? Thanks.

    • Interesting point, I was in that position for a good part of 2013. It’s generally accepted that a person who can pay for a social good should pay for it, but Society is perfectly justified in providing that service (especially one that, since the Brown decision, is constitutionally mandated) to someone disadvantaged, at least for certain reasons, who can’t pay for it. A trivial analogy would be demanding that you (presumably affluent) not pay for Yankee tickets because you being in the stadium doesn’t cost the team one cent more. No one would accept that argument. On the other hand giving free tickets out to disadvantaged youths is applauded.

      Another, though less important reason, is that it would cause chaos in the school systems. Either those students would crowd out Open Choice students, defeating the whole purpose, or the receiving districts would be flooded by the out-of-district students, and would have to at some point start charging them. And even then, the new student could argue that he should only pay his individual marginal cost to the school system. It would be a total mess.

  3. Well said. No dumb or smart kid, just parents pay attention to kids and put efforts into their academic. Stop government control where we go what to learn. As a wilton resident, I pay higher property tax. Why not Wilton charge me less if you decide to accept the open choice program?!

  4. Lisa – thanks for taking the time to write this letter. Very informative. Wilton is fortunate to have residents who care and pay attention. I hope BOE will listen to the voice of constituents.

  5. Thanks Lisa! If and only if the government can take the full responsibility and paying all the cost related to this Open Choice program, but not relaying the cost on us, then I would support this Open Choice program. I start to wonder why the government frequently tries to interrupt and take control on towns matter? Maybe in the future, the governmen somehow thinks Wilton houses are too big, Wiltoners have to share our home with those people in need, for the sake of equal housing opportunity! 😱😱😱

  6. There are a number of claims in your letter that should be responded to. I’m going to assume we get 4 new students a year, and remember Wilton can accept 0 students any year it wants to.

    Ms. Radu and several others answered the error in assuming the full ‘per student’ cost for each incremental student. For me, it’s hard to see what additional costs 4 students would bring. There would be no change in facilities, or administration, no increased staffing, and transportation is paid by the state. If you’re worried about the student/teacher ratio increase, it would increase from 12.524 to 12.537. In fact, the Fairfield district considers Open Choice to be a net revenue generator, and debated this year whether to bring in more students to help close a budget gap.

    Chairwomen Lowe remarked in her letter that the additional costs for Special Ed students would be reimbursed by the sending district (less the $3,000 original reimbursement). I verified this (although actually it says ‘reasonable costs’), and so this is a good deal for Wilton, because it means that the Special Ed costs essentially stay with the sending district. And yes, of course, if the student is being educated in this district the administration of Special Needs student, including IEPs and PPPs should be handled by us.

    Technically the receiving district gets credit for only ½ student, and ½ stays with the sending district. This year Wilton will get about $115 per student, so for 4 students they would ‘lose’ $230, which will never be a financial burden. Norwalk gets $1,386 per student, and if Wilton loses $230 and Norwalk gets to keep $2,772, that’s fine with me.

    Choices continue long after the initial decision. Wilton gets to choose each year how many new students they take, including ‘none’. The students choose if they want to join the lottery pool. After that it’s the luck of the draw, and to me that looks like the fairest way to do it. ‘faceless bureaucrats’ sounds scary, but really isn’t appropriate here. True, Wilton doesn’t get to choose the specific students they want, and the student doesn’t get to choose which of 5 outstanding districts they get placed in. I can’t see what’s unfair about that.

    You mention a ‘wonderful history of accepting sponsored children’, and I assume you mean ABC house. Since 1996 ABC house has sponsored 52 students (which they confirm on their own website). That’s 2.08 students/per year, not really a stellar number. In fact, Wilton has a real problem with diversity in its schools, and has never come to grips with it.

    A true School Choice program is currently not possible given state funding and the area’s attitude. Open Choice is only a tiny little sliver of what ought and needs to be done, but at least it’s something. We should go with what is available to us.

  7. A marginal cost argument holds some merit, but this isn’t just about dollar costs, it’s also about how the current fixed resources are allocated, i.e. “value for money”, for the people who pay taxes. If we have so called “empty seats”, but not enough to reduce the number of teachers and other fixed costs, then students should get more teacher, counselor, etc. time and attention than if we had no “empty seats”. Adding new students from other towns reduces the fixed resources per student. And what happens when the number of students increases from new Wilton families and the town is forced to increase it’s fixed costs? Wilton taxes go up but the Open Choice student revenue doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t in lock step with the cost. And let’s not forget that every year the school budget is a battle in Wilton. It seems the only way this makes sense is if the state/sending system transfers an amount equal to the total per student cost each year to the receiving town.

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