How states can learn from Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment system
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How states can learn from Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment system

The number of participants in Wisconsin's program has grown from 2,500 students to more than 70,000 students.

The term school choice often brings to mind vouchers, education savings accounts, or charter schools. But another form of school choice is critical to giving families options that might better fit their needs: cross-district open enrollment.

While many states allow students to transfer to schools across district lines, only nine states implement robust policies that ensure students have access to schools with available seats. A new Reason Foundation policy brief shows promising results and highlights how Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment system can serve as a model for policymakers in other states.

For starters, Wisconsin’s open enrollment program has shown tremendous growth. The number of participants has grown from 2,500 students in the 1998-99 school year to more than 70,000 students in the 2021-22 school year.

The figure below compares enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools and choice programs over time. While public school enrollment in Wisconsin has fallen precipitously, cross-district open enrollment has continued to grow, even outpacing the growth of private school choice in recent years. 

Importantly, the study suggests that cross-district open enrollment helps students access better schools, finding that districts that see net gains through the open enrollment process tend to have significantly higher ratings on the state’s report card than districts that lost students. This finding supports the idea that parents are in the best position to make decisions for their kids and that open enrollment is a viable vehicle for putting them in the driver’s seat.

While multiple factors have contributed to the success of Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment policy, a significant factor is that a substantial portion of students’ per-pupil funding follows them to their new school districts. For regular program students, Wisconsin transfers $8,125 to the receiving school district from the residentially assigned district. This represents about 59% of the average combined state and local spending per student in the state and exceeds the average per-student state contribution by a little more than $1,000.

Wisconsin’s approach creates a win-win by leaving behind some funds to cover fixed costs for the sending district and providing a strong financial incentive to accept transfers for the receiving school district.

For transfer students with special needs, this amount goes up to $12,977. The importance of this increased value should not be lost. Historically, Wisconsin school districts would reject transfers due to claims that they were unable to meet student needs. By offering a higher transfer funding amount, districts are incentivized to take on more challenging students who are often most in need of new opportunities.

A final key component to Wisconsin’s success is that school districts can only reject transfer students’ applications for limited reasons, such as grade level capacity and the applicant’s discipline or truancy records. Otherwise, school districts must accept all transfer applicants so long as open seats are available. In fact, school districts must implement a lottery if the number of transfer applicants exceeds the number of available seats. This limits the arbitrary rejection of students and encourages families who need a change to apply in a relatively transparent process.

Open enrollment is just one tool in the education reformers’ toolbox, but its important potential should not be underestimated. Since open enrollment only involves public schools, there is the potential to bring along new allies who may be reluctant to support other forms of school choice. Wisconsin’s open enrollment program is not perfect, but the state’s ambitious program can serve as a starting point for other states looking to open up public school choice.

For more information, please see the policy brief, “K-12 open enrollment in Wisconsin: Key lessons for other states.