Ridgefield Democratic View: Open Choice is a Good Choice for Ridgefield

This year the Connecticut legislature passed, and Governor Ned Lamont signed into law, legislation expanding eligibility in the state’s Open Choice program to Danbury and surrounding community school districts, including Ridgefield.

Under the program, districts with schools that are nearing their capacity limits can negotiate arrangements with neighboring districts with schools that are not at capacity to send students from the capacity-constrained district to the capacity-available district.

The students who travel to the neighboring districts for schooling do so on a wholly volunteer basis, the sending school contributes funding to the receiving school for any special education needs, and the state underwrites the transportation costs.

Initiated in the late 1960s as “Project Concern,” the program has operated successfully in Connecticut for more than 50 years. Ridgefield Public Schools (RPS) should welcome Open Choice for its benefits to the town and to its students and taxpayers.

Open Choice is economically and fiscally sound. When a school system runs out of space, it has to add capacity—portable classrooms and eventually permanent buildings--to meet anticipated population needs for decades into the future. Each added school requires massive up-front capital investment that also triggers increases in annual operating expenses, even though initially the newly added school capacity may be under-utilized. Avoiding or delaying such huge capital projects and the attendant operating expenses can help slow or flatten growth in municipal budgets and local property taxes.

Likewise, a school system that “rents” its own under-utilized capacity to a neighboring capacity-exhausted school system, will secure an incremental funding stream to apply against its own existing (and largely fixed) capital and operating expenditures. This is another way that participating in Open Choice will help Ridgefield to slow or flatten growth in budgets and property taxes.

Finally, the Open Choice program also helps Connecticut contain state income and sales taxes. Here’s how: The subsidies that the state provides to underwrite Open Choice are a fraction of the state’s share of the avoided new school construction costs.

Open Choice’s appeal goes far beyond its dollar benefits to towns, taxpayers, and the state budget, however. Open Choice brings educational rewards and prepares students for an increasingly diverse world. Testimonials by and studies of students who participated in Open Choice, or its predecessor program “Project Concern,” show that participating students from sending school districts had higher academic and career outcomes than their peers who did not participate. Studies also show that students and schools in the receiving district saw no adverse effect on academic performance. It’s little wonder that a number of Ridgefield’s neighbors (Easton, Weston, Westport, and Fairfield) already participate in Open Choice.

That Open Choice has an overwhelmingly positive effect on both sets of students and schools should come as no surprise. Research shows that institutions—corporate, nonprofit, governmental, military, educational--with greater diversity produce better results, whether those results are products, services, or students at any level.

Open Choice is voluntary for everyone involved – the sending school district, the receiving school district, and the participating guest students. As with the widely-hailed A Better Chance (ABC) program in which Ridgefield already participates, the students and families volunteer to participate and are committed to education in general and to a specific receiving school. Students with such intense levels of personal and family commitment will enhance the educational and social experience of every Ridgefield class in which they enroll and every Ridgefield student with whom they interact.

The Ridgefield Board of Education should promptly direct Superintendent Dr. Susie Da Silva and the Ridgefield Public Schools administration to negotiate with Danbury Public Schools to implement a pilot program for fall 2021, to the benefit of both communities and our students.

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