State legislatures are increasingly looking toward open enrollment as a way to give families opportunities across school district boundaries. Open enrollment programs allow families to transfer from their assigned public school district to another.
Although research on open enrollment, a form of school choice, is surprisingly limited, it shows immense promise. The research thus far shows students transfer for a variety of reasons and tend to transfer to higher-performing school districts. In fact, there’s reason to believe that school districts that experience enrollment losses respond positively to students transferring out— by increasing community engagement and expanding programmatic offerings, for example.
Florida’s open enrollment policy is a model for other states to learn from and there are ways to make it even better.
Almost every state has an open enrollment program, but policies vary widely from state to state with most requiring substantive improvements. In 2016, Florida passed legislation creating a statewide Controlled Open Enrollment (COE) policy that requires all 67 school districts to participate and includes both inter- and intra-district transfers.
The legislation allows students to transfer from their assigned school to any public school with available capacity. After three years of implementation, initial data suggests COE is expanding access to quality education to a growing number of families. However, the policy has room for improvement because some school districts are still limiting opportunities for families.
COE gives parents and students the freedom to determine which school is best suited to their needs rather than attend the one assigned to them. For example, working parents can send their children to schools conveniently located near their jobs––even if they work in another county. The policy also allows students from low-income communities to exit low-performing schools. In fact, over half of students participating in COE receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Specifically, Florida’s policy allows parents to enroll their student in any public school, including charter schools, as long as the school has not reached capacity, the parent provides transportation, and the child is not currently subject to expulsion or suspension. Determinations of school capacities are at the discretion of districts, but class sizes may not exceed maximums established under state law.
Among other requirements, district COE policies must:
- adhere to federal desegregation requirements,
- allow parents to declare school preferences, including the placement of siblings within the same school,
- provide a lottery procedure to determine student assignment and establish an appeals process for hardship cases,
- afford parents of students in multiple session schools preferred access to controlled open enrollment,
- maintain socioeconomic, demographic, and racial balance, and
- maintain existing academic eligibility criteria for public school choice programs.
Once school districts adopt COE policies, they are required to post information about the application process and which schools have available capacity to their websites. However, several districts provide little or none of this information online.
School districts must also provide preferential treatment to certain students including:
- dependent children of active-duty military personnel whose move resulted from military orders,
- children who have been relocated due to a foster care placement in a different school zone,
- children who move due to a court-ordered change in custody due to separation or divorce, or the serious illness or death of a custodial parent, and
- students residing in the school district.
Once a student is accepted, they may remain at the school until they complete its highest grade level, even if the school reaches capacity.
The legislation requires school districts to report the number of students participating in COE each year to the Florida Department of Education. However, only 48 districts reported enrollment numbers for all three years since the program was established in 2016. The available data suggest that more than 273,475 students participated in COE last year, with more than 5,693 transferring between districts—a more than 50 percent increase since the policy was enacted in 2016.
Students appear to be primarily transferring to well-performing districts and schools. Over two-thirds of transfer students crossing school district boundaries enrolled in districts with graduation rates above the state mean and more than 90 percent of inter-district transfer students attend A- or B-rated school districts.
Unfortunately, not all districts have embraced COE and some use their discretion to limit the number of students transferring under the program. For example, some high-performing schools and districts may be reluctant to accept transfers because the lottery process prevents them from selecting the most preferable applicants. Their ability to determine which schools have available capacity creates an opportunity to restrict entry into the most desirable schools.
COE also impacts school district finances. While districts are partially funded by local property taxes, local funds don’t follow transfer students to their new schools. This can lead to resentment if out-of-district students are perceived as not “paying their share.” State funding is determined by district enrollment counts, which suggest that districts with many students transferring out may be somewhat opposed to COE. Generally, students transfer from small rural districts to larger urban districts or from lower-performing to higher-performing districts. Consequently, smaller and lower-performing districts may be less likely to embrace COE.
Florida’s growing COE program is providing opportunities for thousands of students across the state, but the policy could be strengthened to provide more students with access to quality education.
Establishing a clear standard for school capacity would prevent districts from manipulating standards and preventing students from transferring to the most desirable schools. Moreover, developing mechanisms for local funding to follow students could eliminate some of the financial motivations for districts to resist COE. School districts could also be held more accountable for reporting COE data to the Department of Education and providing the required information on their websites.
These measures would help expand options for students and families while providing other states with an even better model to emulate.