Do you think your state has K-12 open enrollment? You might be wrong.
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Do you think your state has K-12 open enrollment? You might be wrong.

Policymakers should strengthen their open enrollment policies so every student can choose a public school that is the right fit, regardless of where they live.

When asked if they have K-12 open enrollment in their state, many state policymakers will answer, “Yes!” Most policymakers and education researchers rely on the Education Commission of the States’ (ECS) report, which calculates that 43 states have some form of open enrollment. 

The ECS report is a helpful starting place, but it doesn’t consider important value judgments that can help policymakers craft good laws. For instance, although the ECS report accurately notes that most states permit some sort of student transfer, it doesn’t explain that many of these policies fall short of best practices for open enrollment.

A key component of a good open enrollment policy is making it mandatory for all school districts. This means that any student can transfer to a school outside their assigned one so long as seats are available.

Unfortunately, open enrollment laws in most states are voluntary, so school districts may opt out of open enrollment participation. This means that resistant school districts can exclude all transfer applicants. 

For instance, most of the affluent suburban school districts surrounding Ohio’s eight major cities opt out of the program, significantly limiting better schooling opportunities for nearby urban and rural children. Nevertheless, the ECS report still ranks Ohio’s open enrollment policy as “mandatory.” This is because ECS considers a policy mandatory if it includes provisions that only “require districts to offer open enrollment in at least some circumstances.” Unfortunately, this leaves school districts with a lot of wiggle room, especially when states don’t require districts to participate.

When state policymakers improve their open enrollment laws to be fairer, resistant school districts will openly oppose these efforts. For example, the superintendents of top-performing school districts in Kansas opposed a mandatory open enrollment law because it would make them accommodate students from less affluent neighborhoods. 

Expensive housing costs aren’t the only way school districts can impede student transfers. New Hampshire’s law lets school districts cherry-pick students by letting them consider students’ “academic aptitude” during student selection. New Mexico and Louisiana limit open enrollment participation to students assigned to failing schools. Minnesota and Vermont let school districts place artificial caps on the number of students that can transfer in or out. And 24 states don’t explicitly prohibit school districts from charging tuition to transfer students.

So while 43 states permit cross-district transfers, these policies are often designed so that student participation is limited. In fact, only 16 states have inclusive open enrollment policies that require all school districts to participate so long as they have available capacity. Just this year, five states–Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia–significantly improved their open enrollment laws, making their policies mandatory for all school districts.

While savvy school districts can still game the system, as Tim DeRoche points out in his book, A Fine Line, state policymakers can bolster mandatory open enrollment policies with robust transparency provisions. For instance, school districts should post their open enrollment policies and procedures on their websites. Additionally, they should post their open seats by grade level so parents know if there is room for their children to enroll. Only nine states, however, include all of these transparency provisions in their laws.

State education agencies (SEAs) should also collect important open enrollment data, such as the number of transfer students, how many transfer applications were rejected, and why they were rejected. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction publishes annual reports with this data and more, ensuring that school districts’ open enrollment processes are transparent and fair. 

Only two other states, Oklahoma and Kansas, require their SEAs to publish this data. In addition to publishing its open enrollment data, Oklahoma randomly audits 10% of school districts to ensure that they are accurately reporting their open seats. If the audit finds that a school district misrepresented its capacity, the state will set a new capacity limit for the school district.

While the ECS report is a good starting point for open enrollment research, simply permitting open enrollment is not enough. Open enrollment policies that are overly deferential to school districts are one of the main barriers to public school choice. 

Moreover, residential assignment is an archaic method of student selection that has a history of racial discrimination. Even now, school districts use residential assignment to exclude students they perceive as undesirable, such as those whose families can’t afford to live inside a district’s boundaries or students with disabilities

Policymakers should strengthen their open enrollment policies so every student can choose a public school that is the right fit, regardless of where they live. Most states need to make major improvements to their laws, but the swift action of five states this year shows that state policymakers can reform their laws to ensure that students can attend schools that are the right fit.