State Sen. Will Haskell (D-26) hosted a Facebook Live conversation with Wilton’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Kevin Smith, on Monday evening to discuss the Open Choice Program that Haskell is promoting in the current legislative session.
As Haskell describes it, Open Choice “allows suburban school districts with declining enrollment to voluntarily offer seats to students from overcrowded urban districts.”
Westport and Easton school districts have accepted students from Bridgeport for decades. Now, Haskell has introduced a bill that would expand Connecticut’s existing Open Choice program to Norwalk and Danbury schools.
In addition to Smith, Dr. Rydell Harrison, superintendent of Redding-Easton Region 9, joined Haskell on the live-streamed discussion. While Easton already participates in Open Choice, the bill Haskell introduced would allow Redding schools to accept students from Danbury if passed.
Haskell introduced the bill with State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk), and State Sen. Julie Kushner (D-Danbury). The program has often received bipartisan support, and Republicans including Wilton’s First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Danbury’s former mayor Mark Boughton have endorsed the Open Choice program.
Haskell calls the concept “mutually beneficial” for both districts that participate–the districts eligible to send students often have “surging student enrollment and not enough resources that they’re looking for solutions,” and the districts that would accept students are frequently high-performing, resource-rich districts facing declining student enrollment and less likely to have racial and economic classroom diversity.
“When we have surging student enrollment in cities like Danberry and Norwalk and declining student enrollment in nearby suburbs with open seats being left empty, it seems like a natural solution to bring some of those students into our suburban school system and allow them to benefit from the world-class public schools that Wilton and Redding have to offer,” Haskell said.
While the Wilton Board of Education hasn’t had any kind of discussion about Open choice yet, Smith said it will definitely be on the agenda soon and he’s been “exploring the possibility” for some time. He calls expanding the program “really a win-win.”
“Regionally, we have a long history of collaboration in lots of different ways across districts. And, as some of our neighboring districts–Danbury, Norwalk–are experiencing surging populations and a number of us are experiencing some decline in our populations, there’s an opportunity. And then of course, for a district like ours, the opportunity to, even in a small way, to diversify our student population is a win-win, both for the students coming into our district, as well as for those that live here,” Smith said.
Harrison said that Open Choice has been “mutually beneficial” for Easton and Bridgeport, and sees expanding it as a “great opportunity.”
“We currently in Easton, Redding and Region Nine, have a pretty widespread and significant diversity, equity and inclusion initiative that we’ve kicked off this year. And we really understand and would benefit from having a more diverse population for all of our students while also recognizing the potential impact that we could have on some of our neighbors just down the road,” he said.
Haskell acknowledged that not everyone in his district supports Open Choice. He has received criticism from some constituents, particularly those who have been especially vocal through Hands Off Our Schools, the group that formed in Wilton and spread statewide when bills promoting school regionalization were introduced in Hartford two years ago.
He asserted that Open Choice was not regionalization, and asked Smith to affirm that.
“For the benefit of whoever might be watching and listening to this, this is not regionalization, it has nothing to do with regionalization,” Smith said. “First and foremost, it’s an opportunity that districts can opt into, so it’s choice. Wilton hasn’t made that choice yet, but ultimately Wilton would decide whether or not it would want to participate.”
He added, “Beyond that, the scope of what this program really is trying to do, the spirit here isn’t regionalization, although it does speak to regional cooperation.”
Haskell reiterated that participating in Open Choice is “entirely voluntary,” and something that has a “record of success” in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and New London for decades.
According to Haskell, 3,000 students in 49 CT school districts already participate in the program.
“Given the record of success with this program, it makes sense to expand opportunities for students in Danbury and for students in Norwalk, but whether or not Redding and whether or not a Wilton or Ridgefield or New Canaan for that matter, decide to participate in this program and begin accepting students is entirely a decision of that community,” Haskell explained.
Districts would have autonomy over how many students they would accept, starting in elementary school, all the way through K-12, he added.
Other points he made were intended to address questions and criticism around the issues of cost. According to Haskell:
- “Transportation costs to bring students from their home district to the host district is paid for entirely by the state.”
- Increased costs associated with an incoming student’s education, including special education, would be paid for by the sending district, not by the hosting district.
Some criticism that’s been leveled at Open Choice suggests that the program doesn’t go far enough to address economic and racial segregation and resource inequity in Connecticut. Haskell addressed this as well, saying he doesn’t believe Open Choice is a “cure-all for Connecticut’s educational issues”
“This program won’t fix that. As I told the Ridgefield Board of Education the other night, it’s a stitch on a band-aid of an open wound, but it moves us in the right direction,” he said.
As the superintendent in a regional district where Open Choice is already in use, Harrison said a district has to be very conscious of how all students are represented and the potential for benefit for everyone, students and staff combined.
“Once a kid is showing up in our building, they belong to us. It doesn’t really matter where they’re going home to. But one of the things that is key in serving them well is to make sure that we are preparing ourselves to meet the needs of diverse learners, to make sure that our receiving students feel represented in our curriculum and our studies,” he said.
“One of our aspirational goals for all three of our districts is to build a caring community … We know that the broader community in Connecticut and also across this country and across the world, doesn’t look like the demographics of our smaller towns. So being able to have our students learn alongside students who have different backgrounds, different experiences in life, I think that that is a really hub for some great things to happen,” he said, adding, “Surely that’s been the case in Easton.”
That outlook resonated with Smith.
“Globalization and shifting demography has really increased diversity all across the globe. So recognizing that and having the opportunity to encounter and get to know and experience people with different lived experiences, different backgrounds, whether they’re ethnic, socioeconomic, what have you, it is a value,” he said.
He views that as an important value in a district where he said Wilton graduates often describe having been living in a bubble.
“What they’re speaking to is the relative homogeneity of the population. And while the population is changing, the population is diversifying, you don’t see it very plainly always in our classrooms. Having the opportunity to have more kids with different backgrounds would really be a strong benefit in terms of developing the richness of understanding of how wide and diverse life is on this planet,” Smith said.
Haskell described a prior program called “Project Concern” championed several decades ago by John Mannix, a Republican legislator who represented Wilton and New Canaan. Project Concern brought Bridgeport students into Wilton Public Schools–”so this is not unheard of.”
Other local Open Choice supporters have pointed to A Better Chance of Wilton (ABC) as an example of a voluntary form of the program that has already succeeded here.
Funding Open Choice
In addition to state-funded transportation costs and any special education costs paid for by the sending district, Haskell says the bill includes a grant for the hosting district. Depending on how many students participate, that grant would provide between $3,000-$8,000 in per-pupil funding.
While that amount seems much lower than what districts set as per-pupil costs in budgeting, Haskell asked his guests if there’s confusion between what he said was “the marginal cost of adding a student into a seat that would otherwise be empty” and per-pupil cost, which incorporates a district’s fixed expenses.
He suggested that Open Choice might be financially beneficial for a district to fill an open seat, rather than something a district would have to spend money on to make up the difference between the grant from the state and the district’s per-pupil cost.
“We don’t see this Open Choice program as being a way to generate revenue, to close any gaps that we have. But on the other hand, when you think about per-pupil cost, there’s so many things built in–the heating and cooling costs of a classroom, is that going to be significantly different because there’s plus-two students in that classroom versus two empty seats?” Harrison explained, adding, “Even our teacher salaries aren’t determined by the number of students that they teach.”
Smith said it’s a question that deserves more research before Wilton would consider participating in Open Choice.
“This is something, as Wilton continues its exploration, we’ll have to nail down a little more carefully, but it seems to me, the cost is really incremental on the margins and especially, given the relatively low numbers of kids that we would be considering taking in, I think that calculus is right on point,” Smith said.
Other Program Elements
Haskell and the school administrators outlined some other program elements in answering questions from viewers.
- Participation in the program begins at a very young age, ideally as young as kindergarten. Once that student is accepted, a long-term commitment is made to the student until 12th grade.
- Year-to-year, the hosting district has an opportunity to determine how many new students it would like to accept into kindergarten or 1st-grade classes.
- Any resources available to all Wilton students would be available to participating Open Choice students. “If the Wilton BOE makes the choice to participate in the program, should the program become available, then whatever student we would choose to take in would become a Wilton Public School student. So the resources that are available to all of our students would certainly be made available to students that come from a neighboring town,” Smith said, including “wraparound supports” in academic, social, emotional areas, and ensuring that, “to the best extent possible, the student participates fully in the life of the school.”
- Harrison added that making sure out-of-district families are engaged in the hosting district is important too. “When you’re talking about families who are a little bit further away in distance, again, we’re talking about the richness of what would happen in the classroom and the benefit. But I think that would also really benefit all of our families, and making sure that our PTAs or any parent programs that we have are inclusive, and that they really represent the total population of the students that we have in our buildings.”
- Haskell said that students who have an older sibling or any sibling who participated in that program would have a priority to participate, although it’s not necessarily a guarantee because the host district would determine how many seats are available.
- Districts would be able to determine available space and would not be forced to exceed their own desired class size.