When Districts Shut the Door to Open Enrollment for Transfer Students

Barnard: Arbitrary definitions of 'capacity' let schools deny low-income families the educational choice their state law provides

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When Oklahoma legislators approved a new K-12 open enrollment law in 2021, school choice advocates celebrated the reform for providing students more options within the public school system. Implemented at the onset of the 2022-23 school year, the state’s mandatory cross-district open enrollment policy allows nonresident students to enroll in neighboring districts regardless of their educational needs, academic performance or athletic ability. The law also allows transfers at any point during the school year and allows applications to be denied only if a district lacks open seats in the appropriate grade level.

But despite having a strong open enrollment law, Oklahoma is dealing with a problem faced by other states with strong student transfer policies: how to ensure districts aren’t arbitrarily defining capacity to keep neighboring students out. 

Even in school choice-friendly states like Arizona and Florida, problems with protectionist districts have lingered, in many cases out of a desire to preserve a system where families must purchase expensive real estate to access schools — keeping low-income students out. Objecting to open enrollment legislation in Kansas, two district superintendents submitted written testimony last year, “Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now,” they said.

These problems raise important questions about how districts can be held accountable when they don’t open their doors to outsiders. 

An October report from Oklahoma-based news outlet KOSU indicated that nearly 11,000 students in the state requested a district transfer under the new law during the summer leading into the 2022-23 school year. At the time, roughly 8,400 of these applications were approved, 500 were pending and 2,000 were denied. Most of these denials were due to insufficient school district capacity — a lack of space. 

In fall 2022, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs observed that the definition of capacity is set by individual school districts, causing the transfer rules to “appear haphazard or even arbitrary from district to district.” This variation in definitions has disproportionately affected city students, with KOSU noting that although denials were rare, they were “mostly concentrated in suburban and exurban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.”

Lacking a standardized definition of district capacity isn’t a problem unique to Oklahoma. Arizona’s open enrollment law requires districts to report each school’s capacity by grade level and update the figure every 12 weeks — but never elaborates on how districts should determine capacity in the first place.

Florida’s Controlled Open Enrollment law includes more language on how districts should assess school capacity, saying they can’t exceed a statewide maximum class size limit and must “incorporate the specifications, plans, elements and commitments contained in the school district educational facilities plan and the long-term work programs.” But even this definition of capacity still affords districts plenty of room to arbitrarily deny applicants. 

But there are other routes that could circumvent this problem. The Foundation for Excellence in Education has suggested that districts reserve space for nonresident students up front, making lack of capacity an unacceptable reason for denial. While intriguing, this proposal could go too far since there are certainly instances where schools truly don’t have space for additional students. Some flexibility is needed.

Another promising solution is to focus on more carrot and less stick. States should consider strengthening incentives for districts to accept students. While some are worse than others, all state funding systems have provisions that prevent education dollars from following students who cross district lines. These nonportable dollars often come from local tax levies or state funding streams that aren’t sensitive to changes in enrollment. For districts evaluating transfer applications, it’s easy to see how a lack of funding portability can make them reluctant to receive a nonresident student.

Research from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that funding portability can have a real impact on how willing districts are to participate in open enrollment. To strengthen incentives, state legislators should reduce school district reliance on these kinds of local revenue streams or find ways to make these funds move with students to the school of their choice. 

Coming up with a clear and enforceable definition of school capacity is difficult and won’t solve every problem in states’ open enrollment systems. Beyond getting more punitive with school districts that close their doors to outsiders, legislators should ensure the financial incentives make welcoming nonresident students too lucrative to pass up.

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