School Choice: Behind the Budget


Mila Barry

Chalk Art by Mila Barry

MILA BARRY, Staff Writer

In the education system, as in any institution, money dictates function.  

Funds are laid out, split and spent, carefully allotted to ensure fairness between districts and within school communities.  From basic electrical expenses, to variety of APs offered, school resources are controlled by the funds at the disposal of administration- and when it comes to school choice, funding plays an interesting role in keeping budgets balanced.

The theory behind school choice budgeting is very simple.  Each time a child leaves the Gloucester Public School  system, $7,145.50 of their per pupil expenditure of  $16,600.62 is transferred from the Gloucester district to the new district.  The cost of school choice tuition fluctuates by year. Since 1996 the cost has increased by 68.5 percent, from only $4,893.30 per student.  

As of the 2018 fiscal year, Gloucester paid $2,179,366 to send students to various surrounding districts. That’s about 6.2 percent of Gloucester’s total foundation budget.  83.7 percent of that figure goes to Rockport Schools alone.  That’s $1,824,129.34 that Gloucester sent to Rockport this year.

The surprise, however, is not the effect that school choice has on Gloucester.  It’s the effect that is has on Rockport.

Theoretically, one might think Rockport is losing money in this transaction.  After all, Gloucester only sends about 43 percent of the necessary funds to educate a child along with each kid who choices.  Rockport has to provide the other 57 percent from its total budget “pool,” which does not increase when more kids enter the district.  

Contrary to expectation however, Rockport actually benefits from this set up, and it’s due to statewide protocols for funding schools.

Essentially, public schools are paid for by two factors.  These two together must be greater than, or equal to, the foundation budget, a baseline target budget which is unique to each district.  

According to the Massachusetts Department of  Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), “A foundation budget is calculated for each school district, representing the minimum spending level needed to provide an adequate education.

The foundation budget is adjusted each year to reflect changes in the district’s enrollment; changes in student demographics (grade levels; economically disadvantaged status; English language proficiency); inflation, and geographical differences in wage levels.”  

These two factors are the target local contribution, and Chapter 70 aid.  To decide the breakdown between the two, the state calculates how much to give each district by examining what taxpayers in the district can pay.

According to DESE, “A target local contribution establishes an ideal goal for how much each city and town should contribute toward its foundation budget, based on the municipality’s wealth. Two measures of municipal wealth are used: aggregate property values and aggregate personal income, with each given equal weight. The target is recalculated each year based upon the most recent income and property valuations.”

Chapter 70 aid is a state provided figure that represents the difference between the foundation budget and the  target local contribution. For Gloucester, it hovers around 17-18 percent of the foundation budget.

Now here’s how school choice plays into all this.  Gloucester had a foundation budget of $35,423,863 for this current fiscal year.  18.38 percent of it was state money (Chapter 70); that calculates out to $6,509,407.  The other $29,347,381 was covered by Gloucester tax payers.

Rockport is a much smaller town than Gloucester, so its school has a much smaller foundation budget, only $7,549,140 as of 2018.  Of that value, 19.3 percent came from the state and 80.7 came from Rockport tax payers.  

The important thing to notice here is the huge discrepancy between the Gloucester and Rockport foundation budgets.  The cost of school choice tuition may only cost Gloucester 6.2 percent of its foundation budget, but it accounts for an extra 29.9 percent of what Rockport’s  total foundation budget is. Gloucester supplies Rockport with an extra 29.9 percent of its budget.

And it doesn’t end there.  In the foundation budget statement above, DESE sites “changes in the district’s enrollment,” as one of the key factors that determines what a district’s foundation budget will be.  

Students who enter the Rockport school system only are paid for once, but in the years following they are counted as a part of Rockport’s enrollment number. In that way, consistent and significant school choice is an investment that continues to pay.  



Gloucester students make up about of quarter of the Rockport student body population.  Without them, Rockport wouldn’t be nearly as financially stable, but school choice students play more than just a financial role; they fill classes.

In education, population and funding go hand in hand, and in the case of Gloucester and Rockport public schools, those factors decide what opportunities will be available to students.