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Faced with mounting evidence, the middle schooler finally relented. “Yes, Mr. Bulley,” he told me, “I took the phone.”

He said he had intended it as a joke — he knew his classmate would freak out when she found her phone missing — and he always meant to return it. But then when teachers and administrators got involved, he panicked. I told him that I understood and that the most important thing was to return the property and take responsibility. I said I would help.

Together, we walked to where he had hidden the phone. He asked me to return it to his classmate because he was scared. I said that I’d return the phone myself, but he would ultimately need to admit his mistake and prepare for a process during which he could formally apologize. Unfortunately, we never had that chance.

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A few hours later I heard from the middle schooler’s parents. How dare I accuse their son of theft? What evidence did I have? And, the question seemingly most important to them: Would this go in his record? I explained that their son had already admitted he had taken the phone. Yes, there would be a note in his file, I said, but really this was the last thing to worry about — in admitting his mistake and apologizing, he would be learning important life lessons about who he wanted to be. The parents were unsatisfied and, not long after, they transferred him to a different school. I wish they hadn’t.

As was their right — and is the right of every parent in Massachusetts per state law — the middle schooler’s parents had turned to a program called school choice. Introduced 28 years ago, it lets parents send their children to schools in another town or city even if they don’t reside there. (The school district in the student’s hometown pays for the tuition, capped at $5,000 per student, though it can cost more than $6,000 if special education costs are added in.) Some version of school choice exists in every state; the programs are rooted in the theory that competition for students would motivate schools to improve.

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The program has done a lot of good. It’s a way to ensure, for instance, that geography isn’t destiny. Children can attend a high-performing school with stellar academics and elite athletic teams even if their families can’t afford to live in that community. Other families are simply looking for safety: Kids can escape bullies and go on to thrive in a new environment. Still other students are eager for new challenges, or to benefit from specific programs not offered at their assigned schools.

But the freedom to choose a school can also turn some parents into school shoppers and, as we all know, the customer isn’t always right.

About 46 percent of school districts in Massachusetts don’t participate in the school choice program, according to the state Department of Education, because they can refuse to accept students due to lack of space. Most schools that do participate admit waves of transferring students every fall. State figures show the program has grown steadily. In 1996, roughly 6,000 students across the state took advantage of the program. In fiscal 2019, more than 17,000 students participated, with tuition totaling approximately $113 million.

With money like that, it can be too easy to start seeing students in terms of dollar signs. If choice lets some parents act like customers, schools are also deeply involved in the transactions. Some schools have begun advertising in newspapers and on the radio. Many use the program to help balance their budgets to the tune of thousands of dollars every year. But others, especially schools in rural areas like Cape Cod and Western Massachusetts, lose precious funding when students flock to other districts.

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I believe that most parents, most of the time, just use the tools they have to do what’s best for their kids. But every good thing has unintended consequences — and people who would abuse it, knowingly or not.

Sadly, some parents use school choice as an escape, rather than getting their children the help they need. I’ve seen parents who can’t seem to accept that their child has a learning disability and so, when it comes up, they switch schools rather than face it. I sympathize. But because parents don’t face the challenge, the student can miss out on the support they need to be successful, and end up falling further and further behind.

I have less sympathy, however, for parents who use school choice to enable bad behavior. I’ve worked at several schools over the years and have seen this play out again and again. I’ve encountered kids who throw desks and display extreme defiance, who never show up for class, and even a student who opened up a classmate’s private material to devastating sexist and racist attacks online. But before these students could truly be held accountable in any substantive way — before they could learn the pain they caused — they were transferred to other schools. I hope these students learned and changed. But I don’t know, because they were gone before my colleagues and I had a chance to help them try.

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Some kids most in need of support are not being served by school choice. They
aren’t being taught how to survive and thrive in institutions like school, which means they’re missing out on developing the values of community and empathy they need to succeed in the adult world. And, because they are denied an opportunity to learn, they can have a negative impact on the new schools they attend, perpetuating a damaging cycle. When a school becomes something you shop for, education is poorer for it.


David Bulley is an administrator at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter school in Hadley. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.