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States See Dramatic Rise in Open-Enrollment Participation

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Although the issue of public school choice has been overshadowed recently by the debate over private school vouchers, new figures released this month suggest that public open-enrollment programs are gaining in popularity among parents and students.

Three states that established open-enrollment programs in the past few years have reported dramatic increases this fall in the number of students choosing to attend schools outside their districts.

In Massachusetts, the number of students participating in the school-choice program has tripled since last year, from 921 to more than 2,800 this year.

In Iowa, more than 7,500 students have opted to attend public schools outside their home districts, up almost 50 percent over last year, while Nebraska's program has seen a 75 percent increase this fall.

Officials of public-school-choice programs say the increases are the result of more parents and students learning the details and potential benefits of the programs.

"It takes a while for people to become knowledgeable about [public school choice] and become comfortable with it,'' said Don Helvick, a consultant on open enrollment to the Iowa education department.

Seven states--Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah--have what most analysts consider comprehensive public-school-choice programs. Roughly six other states have more restrictive plans, such as an open-enrollment pilot program in Colorado and Ohio's plan allowing transfers between bordering school districts.

Enrollment in the programs is "inching along,'' said Chris Pipho, the director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States.

"If it is working well, it ought to naturally grow as more parents learn about it,'' Mr. Pipho said. "You should get a certain amount of up-creep based on keeping the same families enrolled. They, then, will tell their friends and relatives about it.''

While less controversial than vouchers, some education experts take a dim view of open-enrollment programs. A new report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching questions the fairness and effectiveness of most of the established state plans. (See story, page 1.)

Minnesota Growth Anticipated

In Minnesota, the state that pioneered open enrollment in 1987, there have been major increases in the number of students choosing out-of-district schools in each of the last two years.

During the first two academic years of the program, when districts participated voluntarily, only a relative handful of students signed up--140 in 1987-88 and 350 in 1988-89. But after the program became mandatory for districts, the number of student participants rose to 3,200 in 1989-90, 5,940 in 1990-91, and 8,314 last year, according to the state education department.

The figures do not include transfers stemming from any of the state's several other choice programs or from separate agreements between districts, said Barbara Zahn, the enrollment-options specialist for the department.

No figures are available yet for this fall, but participation in the main open-enrollment program is expected to continue its upward trend, Ms. Zahn said.

In Nebraska, a rush of applications at the end of the last school year resulted in an increase in transfer students from 2,345 to 4,114 this fall, said Roger Hudson, the director of the enrollment-options program for the state education department.

"The numbers tell us that a good number of parents want their children to be a part of a junior high school or middle school program, but they may be in an elementary school district without that type of program,'' he said.

In Iowa, transfers between districts under open enrollment have resulted in the merger of some rural districts with their larger neighbors. This month, the Clay Central district agreed to merge with the larger Everly system after Clay Central lost nearly 14 percent of its 285 students to the choice program.

'Here To Stay'

In Massachusetts, as in most states with such programs, a portion of state education funding travels with students who transfer to other districts. As originally created in that state, sending districts were required to pay the receiving district for the full per-pupil cost of transfer students.

But some poorer districts were losing so many students, and with them their education dollars, that the Massachusetts legislature this year amended the program to cap per-pupil payments between districts at $5,000 and provide reimbursements of 50 percent to the sending districts.

The increased number of students in the Massachusetts program is due largely to a jump in the number of districts participating, from 32 last year to 55 this year. A key facet of the state's program is that districts can either agree or decline to accept outside students, but they cannot keep their resident students from leaving.

Peter McDonald, a policy analyst with Gov. William F. Weld's executive office of education, said more districts are signing up because of the obvious financial benefits of accepting outside students. Moreover, he added, "there is a sense among districts that the program is here to stay.''

"There is a ripple effect going on,'' he added. "Communities are losing money as kids leave, so they decide to opt into the program.''

Neither the Boston school district nor any of its surrounding suburban districts has entered the program, Mr. McDonald noted. Many suburban districts accept transfer students from the city, but charge stiff tuition to their parents.

"If we see some of those communities in the Boston metropolitan area opt in, then the numbers [of overall participants] will continue to rise,'' Mr. McDonald said. "If not, it will stabilize. Districts opting in will not be able to bring in students indefinitely, because they will run out of space.''

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