Open Enrollment in Districts: Choices and Consequences

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — July 11, 2013 3 min read
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A new paper focused on open enrollment policies from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States says that while open enrollment policies are growing increasingly popular, states must refine their policies to ensure that options are truly available to the students they’re intended to help.

Open enrollment policies allow families to choose between public (non-charter) schools, either within a district or across district lines. Twenty-one states offer interdistrict transfers, and 22 allow parents to choose which school within a district their child will attend. Open enrollment is almost a quarter-decade old: Minnesota passed the first law in 1988. The idea was that families, especially low-income or disadvantaged families who might not be able to afford private school tuition or to move to areas with better schools, might have more options within the public school system.

The paper says that the percentage of families that say they have “chosen” which public school their child will attend has increased from 11 percent to 16 percent between 1993 and 2007.

Room for Improvement
But the programs haven’t always had the intended effect. Studies have found that in some cities, high-income students are most likely to take advantage of open enrollment options. And a study of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, home of that first law, found that open enrollment may have led to increased segregation in schools.

The paper recommends that states examine how to improve transportation options; disseminate information about the availability of open enrollment to more disadvantaged families; improve access to school performance report cards to inform parents’ decision; offer incentives for schools to accept transfers; and determine how and whether to use open enrollment to help students whose schools have closed.

Transfers: In many states, schools can prohibit transfers if space is a concern, but what just when a school is “full” is not generally defined in the laws. Some potential receiving schools might be reluctant to bring in students from low-performing schools for fear of bringing down their school’s score on state report cards. The author suggests that states offer “carrots” to schools to accept new students by having a “hold-harmless” period when the new students’ test scores don’t affect a school’s score.

Transportation:Studies of open enrollment policies in Denver and in Washington found that between 25 and 40 percent of families said that transportation options affected which school they sent their child to. A similar number proportion said that they would send their child to a different school if not for transportation concerns. This paper recommends that states investigate how to provide affordable, realistic transportation, especially for low-income families that wish to take advantage of open enrollment.

You can read the paper for more suggestions about other issues related to open enrollment, and for helpful maps that illustrate where inter- and intradistrict transfers are permitted or required by state legislatures. Most of the data it presents is not new, but it’s interesting to see which states have open enrollment policies and what challenges have arisen in the past two decades—and to consider how policymakers might want to tweak policies to improve their offerings.

In the News
Intra- and inter-district transfers have both been in national news recently. In Buffalo, the Buffalo News reports that the district is looking to figure out how to accommodate students who want to transfer from one of its 45 failing schools to one of 12 non-failing schools within the district. Meanwhile, the question of whether Missouri students can leave unaccredited districts has made this a complicated summer for districts near Kansas City.

For more on charters and school choice, check out the Charters & Choice blog.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.