Interdistrict Enrollment Is Appealing But Tricky

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Florida schools are preparing for next year's rollout of one of the nation's most unrestricted open-enrollment laws allowing students to more easily cross district lines to go to school—a practice that has grown slowly nationwide amid both statutory and practical hurdles.

Nationwide, 23 states had some type of mandatory, interdistrict open-enrollment laws in 2015, prior to enactment of Florida's law, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But many of the laws set strict limitations, such as granting only transfers out of low-performing schools. Many states also have voluntary policies both within and outside districts.

Florida's lawmakers this spring added to that state's already robust school choice program by approving a mandatory, interdistrict open-enrollment law, giving families the chance to select any public school in the state with few restrictions. Previously, interdistrict transfers were only voluntary, and not all districts allowed students to transfer in.

Families can start taking advantage of the law in 2017-18 when districts and charter schools will be required to enroll students at any campus where space is available. Schools must advertise which campuses have openings.

"These mandatory, interdistrict policies are pretty common. Florida is probably on the more expansive side from what I've seen," said Deven Carlson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma who has researched open-enrollment policies.

Mixed National Picture

Minnesota passed the nation's first mandatory open-enrollment law in 1988. Since then, mandatory interdistrict-transfer policies have grown quietly and slowly over more than two decades but with tight parameters, said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

More commonly, students transfer within their own districts in states that allow such transfers.

Find a Seat

Nearly half the states have mandatory interdistrict open-enrollment policies that allow a student to transfer to a school outside his or her home district.

But many states with mandatory open-enrollment laws have limitations.

California, for example, has a law that allows parents to transfer out of the bottom 1,000 lowest-performing schools. But only a limited number of schools per district are put on the list of lowest-performing schools, and receiving districts can set their own rules for accepting or rejecting students. Parents have rarely used the law.

In some states, such as Idaho, receiving districts are allowed to reject students who want to transfer out of their neighborhood districts, according to the ECS. Some states, including Montana and Mississippi, allow transfers when students live closer to schools in other districts. Vermont's policy pertains only to high schools.

Capacity is the most common reason that districts reject students, but it can be defined in different ways, experts say. Florida has class-size limits in the state constitution, approved by voters in 2002.

Distance and transportation are major factors when parents choose schools, experts say. While some laws provide limited busing, most policies require parents to provide transportation.

"If there's no public transportation, then only the most-advantaged students are going to move," said Lesley Lavery, an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in Minnesota, who has researched open-enrollment policies.

Those factors especially could hinder parents in Florida, which has large districts that span the size of each county. Five of Florida's districts are among the top 25 biggest nationwide. The Miami-Dade County school system alone stretches over about 2,000 square miles, and has 392 schools.

The new law does not require schools to provide transportation outside their districts, but schools can do so if they wish.

"Transportation is an enormous issue even under very normal circumstances," said Ruth Melton, the director of government relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

Researchers Carlson and Lavery looked at trends in Colorado and Minnesota. In Colorado, the number of students who transferred to other districts tripled over a decade, up to 68,829 in 2010-11. In both states, low-income students were significantly less likely to transfer outside their districts.

"It's often the more-advantaged students in the less-advantaged districts that are using open enrollment. But it can also be the fairly well-off students looking to go to the best districts," Carlson said.

Carlson found that open-enrollment policies seemed to slightly improve the racial balance of districts' populations in Colorado from 2005 to 2010, but it worsened the socioeconomic balance.

In Minnesota, Myron Orfield, a law professor at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, found in a 2013 study that 36 percent of the open-enrollment moves increased segregation, with white students predominantly leaving three city districts.

The Minneapolis district offers a program for low-income families, called the Choice is Yours, that provides transportation to attend suburban schools. But Orfield said it's a "small subset" of the open-enrollment program.

The Florida law requires that districts maintain "socioeconomic, demographic, and racial balance," but it doesn't explain how to do so.

Florida's law is part of an expansion of school choice options in the state, which has the nation's fourth-largest student population. It was pushed by the Foundation for Florida's Future, the sister organization of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was launched by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and which has spearheaded school choice efforts nationwide since 2008.

Florida already allows students to transfer within their districts and request transfers to other districts, and the state provides "opportunity scholarships" that offer transportation for children to move from lower-performing schools to higher-performing ones.

Planning Could Be Tricky

Miami-Dade schools, for example, already offer more than 500 magnet programs, so the district isn't expecting many transfers in or out, said John Schuster, a district spokesman.

While Florida students previously were allowed to cross district lines, districts had leeway to turn away requests. The new law generally requires districts to accept students if they have space. Lotteries will be held if there are too many applications.

Districts must give preferential treatment to children of active-duty military personnel who move for work, children who move because of foster-care placements, and children whose parents died, got divorced, or changed custody.

Melton of the state school boards association said it will be tricky to figure out how to plan ahead. Districts must keep open-enrolled students in the school system through the last grade offered. So, districts must make sure there is space to continue with those students, as well as any neighborhood growth.

"This presents a scenario that puts a lot of variables in play at the same time and … some of which can be extraordinarily difficult to anticipate," Melton said.

Another factor is student-athletes.

Florida high school students now will be able to play a sport in the same year they enroll at a school. Previously, athletes had to sit out a year, if they transferred in.

Kyle Niblett, a spokesman for the Florida High School Athletic Association, said the law put in safeguards to prevent improper recruiting. A $5,000 fine could be imposed as a first offense for anyone found illegally recruiting.

"The beauty of this is it allows us to sink teeth into people who are shady," Niblett said.

Still, some school officials worry that this new law could result in sneaky recruiting.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Duval County district said schools often don't have the resources, like the NCAA, to investigate suspicious behavior.

"I do foresee hostile recruiting attempts that probably blur the lines," Vitti said. "I think it will become more aggressive and more prevalent."

Embracing Choice

While Vitti has concerns about the sports piece, he said his district has embraced the existing school choice options in Florida. The district added more magnet and specialized programs and expanded transportation lines to keep some of the thousands of students that were leaving for charter and private schools.

"I believe schools and districts have to evolve to the climate and environment that exists or you become extinct," he said.

Toni Richardson is a parent who has used intradistrict transfers within Duval County.

Her daughter, Taylor Richardson, now 12, applied for a transfer to a school in Jacksonville, which is in Duval County and outside her neighborhood, requiring a 50-mile daily round-trip commute. Toni Richardson, a single mother, said she didn't find that her neighborhood school was a good fit for her daughter, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"It's one of the best decisions I ever made. It was worth every mile," said Richardson, who drives her daughter to school.

Richardson said she would have been willing to go outside the county, if a better school were available. "I think [the law] will help families tremendously because it gives them more options," she said.

Vitti said Duval County, which enrolls 128,700 students, already offers options to students. In 2014-15, 1,012 students transferred on opportunity scholarships. This school year, another 12,911 students had special transfers within the district.

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But far fewer students request voluntary transfers in or out of the district: 378 Duval County students enrolled in other counties' schools, and 103 students came from outside the district.

Vitti expects that few new students will transfer under the new law, in part because the county is so big.

"It does just accelerate those choice options for parents," he said. "I do think we'll see some students leave, but I don't think it will be as expansive as some believe."

Vol. 35, Issue 31, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: May 18, 2016, as Interdistrict Enrollment Appealing, Tricky
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