Attending highly-ranked public schools is an educational holy grail for many families, but enrolling in these public schools can be near-impossible for many students since access to them is based on where students live. Less affluent students often can’t attend these public schools because their families can’t afford the costs required via the expensive mortgages or high rents charged within the schools’ boundaries.
Some students, desperate to attend better schools, lie about where they live–a practice called address sharing–to gain access to higher-performing public schools. Yet, address sharing is risky. In California, it’s a felony that can carry a four-year prison sentence. Some public school districts even hire private investigators to find students who they think are address-sharing. If the district finds evidence, students are expelled, and parents can go to jail.
To its credit, California requires all school districts to participate in within-district open enrollment, which means students can transfer to any public school in their assigned school district if the school has available seats. Unfortunately, California is one of just 13 states in the country that require all school districts to participate in this type of within-district open enrollment.
Open enrollment lets students choose the public schools best for them. Kids may need to escape bullying, access advanced placement (AP) classes, or get better math or artistic offerings. A 2023 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the Los Angeles Unified School District found that within-district open enrollment positively affects student achievement and college enrollment, especially when transfer students are compared with nonparticipants. Moreover, the researchers said the program benefited the school district because the open enrollment program encouraged LAUSD schools to improve, especially lower-performing ones.
These findings align with 2016 and 2021 studies by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) on the state’s District of Choice program, which lets students transfer to schools outside their assigned district. The LAO found students used the program to access AP courses, International Baccalaureate courses, specific instructional models, and specialty courses that weren’t available at their assigned schools.
LAO also found that some school districts, including those with declining student populations, could use open enrollment to attract new students. Small and rural school districts used cross-district transfer students to “generate a notable share of their revenue,” LAO reported.
Unfortunately, only 47 school districts across California, or 5% overall, participated in the District of Choice program in the 2022-23 school year. Students who can’t use the program must navigate the state’s labyrinthine transfer systems that rely on specific school district agreements and things like the number of hours a student’s parent works inside the school district’s boundaries.
As a result, despite its good statewide within-district open enrollment program, California’s open enrollment policies fall short of Reason Foundation’s best practices in four out of five key categories, a new report finds.
For comparison, Texas currently scores worse— zero out of five in best open enrollment practices in Reason Foundation’s new report, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023. That’s partly because California and Texas allow public school districts to charge tuition to transfer students. One Dallas-area public school district, for example, charges public school transfer students $9,000 annually, effectively blocking low- and middle-income students from transferring to it.
However, a cutting-edge open enrollment law has been proposed in the Texas legislature. It would let Texas students move to any public school with open seats without tuition and implement robust transparency provisions to help parents and students. If signed into law, Texas would go from among the worst open enrollment policies in the country to the best. Six other states have already expanded public school open enrollment this year, Public Schools Without Boundaries finds.
California’s District of Choice and within-district open enrollment programs have been helpful, but the state is falling behind. Lawmakers and public school advocates should expand and streamline open enrollment policies so all of California’s students can access public schools with available seats. Rather than letting zip codes determine the quality of public schools available, open enrollment allows students and parents to find the public schools that are best for their educational and social needs.
A version of this column first appeared in the Orange County Register.