NORWALK, Conn. — A bill proposed by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) would allow Norwalk children to attend public school in nearby districts. And children in those communities could come to school here.
Proposed Bill 255, in its infancy, would expand the Open Choice Program to include Danbury and Norwalk and provide funding for it. The Open Choice Program currently serves Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven and their surrounding districts. It’s “intended to improve academic achievement; reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation; and provide a choice of educational programs for public school students,” the State’s website says.
Duff has not replied to several inquiries asking about the bill. On Monday, he told the Democratic Town Committee that urban districts are gaining population while suburban districts are losing population, “so I think it’s a win-win, and the state pays for the net cost.”
The proposed bill is co-introduced by State Senators Will Haskell (D-26) and Julie Kushner (D-24).
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella has spoken with Duff “but we don’t have additional information at this point about how the proposed program would work,” Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said Monday.
“Dr. Estrella supports options that may potentially create more choice for Norwalk students,” she said.
Open Choice enrollments are offered by school districts on a space-available basis, the State’s website states. Lotteries are used to place students when there are more applicants than spaces available. Special education students are eligible and their school districts split the costs.
The State pays transportation costs, the website states. “Arrangements are made by the regional educational service center serving the area. This also applies to students with disabilities unless transportation is considered a related service and is required by the student’s individualized education program (IEP).”
And some weedy details:
- The state pays a grant of $3,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is less than 2 percent of the total population of the receiving district
- The state pays a grant of $4,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 2 percent but less than 3 percent of the total population of the receiving district or $6,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 3 percent but less than 4 percent of the total population of the receiving district
- The state pays a grant of $6,000 per student if enrollment is greater than 4,000 students and the number of students in the program increased by 50 percent
- The state pays a grant of $8,000 per student enrolled if the number of Open Choice students is greater than or equal to 4 percent of the total student population of the receiving district
Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten was copied on the email to Wilcox Williams but did not take the opportunity to comment.
BoE member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell announced the proposed bill on the Facebook page Norwalk Parents for Education, which she created but no longer administers.
“Enrollment has been dropping in our neighboring districts, while it has been growing here in Norwalk,” she noted.
The Open Choice program would be a “nice option” but “I also have concerns,” Meyer-Mitchell wrote. “On the one hand, this would give our students access to some of the best schools in the state. But, they will have a long bus ride both ways, and could experience microaggressions or lack of inclusion. From a budget standpoint, it would alleviate some pressure on both Operating and Capital plans. I am sure there will be a lot of discussion over the coming months.”
She noted that NPS’ per-pupil expenditures are less than neighboring school districts, “a product of CT’s very regressive school funding structure, which is based predominantly on property taxes for funding,” and directed people to a Connecticut Mirror story that features the Open Choice Program.
“I think the bill’s language is intentionally spare, so that it can be examined,” she wrote. “We will all have the opportunity to provide input when there is a hearing. For now, we can study, listen, learn and think about it. My intention in posting today was simply to communicate to stakeholders that this bill had been introduced.”
Meyer-Mitchell said Wednesday that she doesn’t have an official position yet, “other than it offers an additional choice to our district of choice.” It’s not her bill, she said.
State funding for Open Choice would potentially lift operating costs for Norwalk Public Schools, she said on the Facebook page.
“I agree that we should focus on improving Norwalk schools,” she wrote. “The reason enrollment comes into the discussion is the state and city need to fund building new schools. If there is capacity in nearby districts, it is efficient to utilize that existing infrastructure, if it benefits all parties.”