School Districts Often Oppose Open Enrollment. Why That’s a Mistake

Schwalbach: Beyond the benefits to students, transfers can make up for declining school populations and even help small rural districts stay afloat

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Most K-12 students are still assigned to their public schools based on where they live. This means access to high-caliber public schools isn’t equal, because housing costs and school quality are inextricably tied; obtaining a good public education requires an expensive mortgage or high rent.

Open enrollment policies that weaken residential assignment can significantly expand students’ options by letting them attend public schools outside their assigned attendance zones. Parents and students can use open enrollment to find schools with open seats that offer the right academic fit, an escape from bullying, better commutes or a variety of other benefits.

Unsurprisingly, open enrollment is popular with parents. According to EdChoice’s March 2023 national survey data, 70% of parents with children in public schools are in favor of it. That support spans both sides of the political aisle, with 67% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans expressing support.

Unfortunately, school districts often oppose robust open enrollment proposals. The reasons range from fear of being “overwhelmed” by nonresident, and presumably less affluent, students to concern that an exodus will siphon resources, force school closures and spur districts to compete with one another.

Fears of this sort, however, are overblown, as Gallup reported last year that 80% of parents say they are completely or somewhat satisfied with the quality of their children’s K-12 education. While open enrollment would let dissatisfied students transfer to new public schools, the vast majority don’t want to.

In fact, there are reasons for school districts to support open enrollment. It can provide an opportunity to attract new students, especially in the face of declining student populations caused by demographic changes or competition. For instance, Corey Ryan, a former school district administrator, used Texas’s open enrollment policy after his district lost students to charter and magnet schools. By implementing strategies such as launching specialized schools, his district gained 145 transfer students.

In Ohio, a 1996 study found the state’s open enrollment program promoted competition and improvement in rural school districts. More than two decades later, research by Fordham Institute suggested that high rates of rural Ohio districts are participating in the open enrollment program because they recognize it can help “attract more students and the accompanying state funding” at a time of declining student rosters.

In California, a 2016 Legislative Analyst’s Office report found some districts that initially lost students to others through open enrollment then went on to improve, reduce the number of student transfers and even attract new transfer students. Five years later, the office reported that 78% of school districts participating in the voluntary program were small, rural and using open enrollment to “generate a notable share of their revenue.” Without attracting more students and parents via open enrollment, some of these very small districts would not be fiscally viable.

A 2018 report by Ready Colorado found that a high percentage of students enrolled in some rural school districts had transferred from districts a long distance away because they were willing to make longer commutes for the schools of their choice. Some sought-after rural Texas districts post among the highest rates of inbound student transfers in the state, sustaining their enrollment levels.

Most recently, a 2023 EdChoice report found school district administrators in Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana and Florida believe open enrollment incentivizes them “to create new or enhance existing programs in order to increase and retain enrollment.”

These examples illustrate that open enrollment can benefit public school districts, helping to increase enrollment even if their local student population is declining. The additional funds accompanying transfer students help these districts, often small or rural, stay afloat, further demonstrating that school choice is not a death knell for district public schools. In fact, districts worrying about population and migration trends reducing their enrollment may have the most to gain from open enrollment, using it to retain existing students and attract new ones.

Ultimately, districts should embrace open enrollment as an important, straightforward school choice reform with wide-reaching benefits for the large number of students currently enrolled in traditional public schools.

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