Since 1991, when Massachusetts started letting students choose which public school to attend, the number of students enrolling in school districts outside of their hometowns has steadily increased.
In 1992, a total of 3,208 full-time equivalent students participated in the school choice program. This year, about 12,764 school students in Massachusetts elect school choice.
Within the choice program, tuition is paid by the hometown district to the receiving district. Districts may elect not to enroll school choice students if no class space is available.
In Berkshire County, school superintendents regularly discuss the challenges and benefits to the program.
Jason McCandless first joined the Lee public school system in 2002, as principal of Lee Middle and High School and has served as the school district's superintendent since 2005.
"When I came in as principal, we had double the number of students going out of the district than coming in," he said.
In 2003, when the district opened a new middle and high school complex, McCandless said the numbers began to flip-flop over a five-year span.
Today, there are 96 students choosing to attend Lee Public Schools, and 76 Lee students attending other school districts under the school choice program.
McCandless said the majority "choice out" either because geographically, another district is closer to where a student's parents can transport them too, or
Though the district can't change its location, it is experimenting with programs that can keep Lee students in Lee schools.
For example, this fall, the middle and high school piloted two new programs. One is a series of elective courses created based on students' interests. Topics ranged from women's studies to "secrets of restaurant chefs."
In Grade 7, the families could choose to opt their students into a single-gender science and/or math class. This became an offering based on national research that some students may excel in the subjects when taught in same-sex classrooms.
"All this ties into the bigger picture of -- like it or not, no matter how often we work collaboratively, there will always be a healthy dose of competition among the neighboring school districts," McCandless said.
In North Adams Public Schools, Superintendent James Montepare said that though more students choice out of the district than into it, things like the new grade configurations have prompted more students to stay.
Elementary schools offer kindergarten through Grade 7, while high school is grades 8 through 12. Eighth graders at Drury High School, for example, can benefit by being able to participate in advanced academic, music, sports and drama programs. For the second year in a row, the school has dropped "lower-level" courses and only offers college preparatory, honors and Advanced Placement tiers.
Within the North Berkshire School Union, Superintendent Jon Lev said that Clarksburg and Savoy elementary schools and Gabriel Abbott Memorial School in Florida benefit from students and parents seeking smaller class sizes and atmosphere.
Lev said that in 2008, Savoy had five or six kids choice into the school.
"But for a small school like Savoy, it means a lot. It brings in about $35,000 per year. If we didn't have that, we'd be cutting [a position]," he said.
Barbara Malkas, deputy superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools, said that the ability to transport students challenges participation in school choice for some families.
She said based on district surveys, Pittsfield is also losing students to perceptions, for example, that the schools' class sizes are too big or that schools are unsafe. Malkas said elementary classes range from 20 to 22 students; middle school classes average about 18 students; and high school classes vary by enrollment in general and elective courses.
In Pittsfield, there are still more students opting out of the district than into it.
"It's an issue, something we continue to strategize about. We have to recognize that parents make these decisions by what they feel is in the best interest of their children," she said.
For more information, including a guide for parents about school choice, visit http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/schoice.