Improving K-12 open enrollment transparency is low-hanging fruit for state policymakers
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Improving K-12 open enrollment transparency is low-hanging fruit for state policymakers

Parents and policymakers need transparent data about public school transfers.

A new study published by Reason Foundation finds that only nine states have K-12 open enrollment policies that help students access available seats in schools across school district lines. Disappointingly, when it comes to student transfer data transparency, states fared even worse, with only three states meeting the criteria for transparent reporting standards set forth in the report. 

For state policymakers looking to give families more public school options, open enrollment data transparency reform is low-hanging fruit and a key building block of sound open enrollment policy.

Open enrollment reporting promotes accountability by helping to ensure school districts uphold fair policies that welcome transfer students. Data reporting can also give policymakers the information they need to refine their student transfer laws and serve as a parent-driven indicator of school district performance by highlighting the state’s in-demand school districts.

Wisconsin shows what’s possible when a state combines good open enrollment policy with robust data transparency. The state currently has over 70,000 students attending schools outside of their assigned school districts. Each year, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction produces a report for the governor and legislature detailing key open enrollment trends for each school district, including the number of transfer applications received, transfer students enrolled, and a summary of transfer student denials.

So what can we learn from Wisconsin’s open enrollment data?

First, it’s clear that families are looking to leave the state’s lowest-performing school districts. Table 1 shows the bottom 10 school districts in Wisconsin as measured by 2018-19 accountability ratings. All but one of the school districts had more students applying for seats in other districts than applying to come in that same year. In Milwaukee’s case, the difference was staggering. For every non-resident student who applied to transfer into the Milwaukee Public Schools, about seven of the school district’s students applied to leave—7,619 in total.  

Table 1

Next, looking at Wisconsin’s 10 highest-performing school districts in Table 2, the trend is flipped, with all 10 school districts receiving a net positive number of transfer applications. Importantly, just because a school district is delivering on test scores doesn’t mean they meet the needs of all families, which is why even some high-performers are losing some students to open enrollment. Chart 1 provides additional context for these figures, showing school districts’ net transfer applications as a share of total enrollment.

Table 2

Chart 1

It’s clear that a strong open enrollment policy coupled with transparent reporting can deliver a powerful form of parent-drive accountability that can’t be replicated by merely reporting test scores or other metrics commonly used in state accountability systems.

But Wisconsin’s data also shows that far too many students are still being denied transfer opportunities. In the 2020-21 school year, 44,264 students applied to transfer to a different public school district, but 8,331 students were denied their transfers, mostly for space and reasons related to special education.

Students shouldn’t be denied opportunities simply because of their home address or disability status, and policymakers should do more to ensure that public schools welcome all comers. The first step to addressing this problem is knowing and admitting it exists. Unfortunately, due to the lack of information reported, policymakers in most states are operating without any open enrollment data at all.  

Chart 2

State policymakers across the country should ensure open enrollment data are readily available on their state education agency’s websites. Requiring this via statute is a straightforward policy reform that can pay huge dividends for students. For a good start, states can simply follow Wisconsin’s open enrollment playbook.