School Choice & Charters

Study Sheds Light on Nation’s Most Common School Choice Policy

By Holly Kurtz — June 06, 2014 6 min read
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Aside from selecting a home zoned to a desirable public school, interdistrict open enrollment is the nation’s most common form of educational choice. An article published online in March in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy sheds light on this frequent form of school selection by examining five years of data from Colorado. Although many of the findings varied by grade level, one conclusion was particularly consistent and clear: Low-income students ae less likely to open-enroll and more likely to return back home if they do leave the districts in which they reside .

"[S]uch a finding is at odds with common rhetoric and conceptions regarding a primary goal of school choice programs—permitting disadvantaged students to attend higher-quality schools,” conclude study authors Lesley Lavery and Deven Carlson. "[I]t seems likely that the program’s primary use is as a public school voucher program for middle-class and upper-middle-class families. Such usage patterns are not necessarily normatively undesirable, but they need to be recognized to have an honest discussion and debate about the operations and effects of interdistrict choice policies.”

Lavery is an assistant professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn. Carlson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Virtually unheard of 25 years ago, transfers from one public school district to another are now permitted in 40 states. Yet compared to other, smaller choice interventions (public vouchers for private education, publicly funded, independently operated charter schools), interdistrict enrollment has attracted relatively less attention from researchers. The research that does exist has generally found that district characteristics like average achievement influence open enrollment and that higher-achieving students from advantaged families open enroll in greater numbers.

Here’s the problem: As a result of limitations in the type of data that has been available to researchers in the past, previous studies have often compared total transfers into and out of districts, without tracking the characteristics or choices of individual students who open-enroll. This type of research can sometimes produce misleading results due to a problem that statisticians call an “ecological fallacy.” This type of misinterpretation occurs when people make conclusions about individuals (such as a student who open-enrolls) on the basis of their membership in a certain group. (In this case, that group might be the total pool of students who transferred into or out of a certain district.)

The Educational Policy article addresses this gap with an analysis of 1.25 million individual students who attended Colorado schools between 2005 and 2010. The analysis included both students who transferred from one district to another and those who stayed put.

As past research results might have predicted, Lavery and Carlson found that students from higher-income families used interdistrict enrollment at higher rates. In fact, students whose families made too much money to qualify for free or reduced-price meals were almost twice as likely to transfer as students who qualified for free meals.

I would speculate that this might have something to do with the fact that students who take advantage of the state’s interdistrict transfer policy must provide their own transportation. That’s an expense a lower-income family might find more difficult to afford.

Lavery and Carlson did not find consistent evidence that higher-achieving or white students were more likely to open-enroll. But they did find that, at grades 6 and 9, students from higher-income families tended to transfer out of higher-poverty districts and into lower-poverty districts. This confirmed past research findings that families tend to “choice” into districts in which there are greater percentages of students who look like them. Lavery and Carlson expressed concerns that these tendencies could increase socioeconomic stratification as low-income students were left behind in higher-poverty school districts.

Mobility was another concern. Like authors of past research, Lavery and Carlson found that children who exercise choice do not necessarily remain in their new schools. About 70 percent of students who open-enrolled in one year were still open-enrolled the following year. By contrast, 98 percent of students who stayed put were still in their home districts the following year.

Choice-related mobility was a bigger issue for some demographic groups than for others. For example, students who qualified for free meals were 15 to 20 percent less likely (depending on their grade levels) than more affluent transfers to remain in their new school districts the following year. Also, 66 percent of free-lunch qualifiers who open-enrolled in one year were still open-enrolled in the next year. By contrast, 98 percent of free-lunch qualifiers who stayed put were still residing in their home districts the following year.

Among racial groups, Hispanics were least likely to open-enroll. This is a big deal in Colorado since in 2005, the year the study began, 27 percent of the state’s public school students were Hispanic. (Last fall, that proportion had increased to one-third.) By contrast, black students were actually more likely than their non-black peers to open-enroll in elementary and middle school. However, like lower-income students, they were significantly less likely to remain open-enrolled. About three-quarters of white and Asian open-enrollers stay put for at least two consecutive years versus 62 percent of black students. By contrast, 97 percent of black students who chose not to open-enroll ended up attending school in their home districts for two or more consecutive years.

“Such findings raise the possibility that increased levels of student mobility--particularly for disadvantaged populations--represent an unintended consequence of school choice policies, a possibility that is potentially troublesome given the large body of work demonstrating student mobility to have a negative effect on academic outcomes, specifically student achievement,” Lavery and Carlson wrote.

Like low-income students, students with special needs were also less likely to open-enroll. The groups that were clearly underrepresented were special education students, gifted students, and English-learners.

“Less clear is whether the lower rates of participation for these populations are due to families’ choices or to districts’ refusals of transfer applications,” Lavery and Carlson wrote. “As described earlier, districts can legally refuse transfer applications if they do not offer the programs necessary to serve a student. However, given the significantly lower rates of open enrollment by students with special designations, it may be advisable to ensure that districts are not simply using that provision to refuse the applications of students who are more expensive or difficult to serve.”

Like any social science study, this one had limits. Lavery and Carlson noted that their data was drawn from a single state during a single time period. They cautioned that they could not definitively explain why some children open-enrolled and others stayed put. And they noted that they lacked data on one of the main drivers of educational choice, which is the distance between parents’ homes or workplaces and schools. However, they suggested that their analysis did provide some compelling clues for policymakers looking to improve the nation’s largest formal school choice program.

“For example, the finding that, at least in Colorado, open enrollment is disproportionately utilized by socioeconomically advantaged students could cause policymakers who support open enrollment for its ability to provide disadvantaged students with better schooling opportunities to assess whether the design of the policy might be reconsidered to more explicitly target selected populations,” they concluded. “Similarly, the finding of unstable program participation for certain socioeconomic and demographic groups could inform policy actions designed to achieve greater stability in schooling decisions, particularly in light of the substantial body of evidence demonstrating the negative consequences of educational instability.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.