How Some of Our Best Public Schools Work Against School Choice and Low-Income Students
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How Some of Our Best Public Schools Work Against School Choice and Low-Income Students

When it comes to public schools, students should have the freedom to choose to attend the school that best suits his or her needs.

The intent of open-enrollment policies, as well as school choice policies in general, is to give families the educational opportunities they deserve. As such, it makes sense that the school choice movement is making great strides with help and support from African-American and Hispanic communities, who, unfortunately, often have fewer educational options than they should. 

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 61 percent of black children and 59 percent of Hispanic children live in low-income families.  Generally, the groups represented in these low-income student statistics are not able to attend the nation’s best public school districts. This well-known reality might lead you to ask, ‘Why don’t many high-performing public school districts make an active effort to help these kids (after all, they are public)?’

This inquiry would lead you to discover that many of the top-performing public school districts across the United States are working against the expansion of educational freedom and opportunity for low-income minority students. This occurs in two primary ways: school districts refuse to adopt open-enrollment policies and districts charge tuition to out-of-district students. 

The refusal of well-performing school districts to implement open-enrollment policies is an obvious blockade on transfer students. Case and point: Highland Park Independent School District in Dallas, Texas. Not only is this district economically prosperous, with a median household income of $208,000, and racially homogeneous —88 percent white— it is also largely closed-off to out-of-district students wanting to transfer to its schools. Highland Park looks very little like Dallas Independent School District, where the median income is $46,775 and 69 percent of students are Hispanic or black.

Secondly, tuition fees to attend public schools are more common than you’d think. Simply put, tuition-based enrollment means exactly what it sounds like: kids and parents are paying fees to attend public schools outside of the school they’re zoned to attend. In fact, many of these schools even have tuition rates that are considerably higher than nearby private schools. For example, Southfield Christian School in Oakland County, Michigan, which is less than 15 minutes away from Bloomfield Hills Schools, costs, approximately $10,700 a year. The public Bloomfield Hills Schools charges $12,000 tuition to out-of-district students who are accepted. 

Well-performing public school districts like that are rejecting or making it nearly impossible for low-income transfer students in favor of charging tuition fees that only wealthier families can afford. Thankfully, not all public school districts are guilty of reducing educational opportunities for low-income students. In fact, Indiana has substantially increased its number of open-enrollment students in the past decade, thanks in large part to school finance reforms.

However, far too many public school districts are guilty of actions equivalent to ‘creaming’ —taking only the cream of the crop from other schools and districts— rather than embracing open enrollment policies that could give low-income students more opportunities to get a quality public school education. When it comes to public schools, students should have the freedom to choose to attend the school that best suits his or her needs, rather than being relegated to a low-performing school due to their zip code.

Wesley Armstrong is a 2019 policy intern at Reason Foundation.