Most of the nation’s 48.2 million public K-12 students are assigned to their schools based on geographic school districts or attendance zones, with few options for transferring to another public school district. This method of school assignment intertwines schooling with property wealth, limiting families’ education options according to where they can afford to live.
A 2019 Senate Joint Economic Committee report found that homes near highly rated schools were four times the cost of homes near poorly rated schools. This presents a real barrier for many families – and 56% of respondents in a 2019 Cato survey indicated that expensive housing costs prevented them from moving to better neighborhoods. The challenge has only deepened as housing prices skyrocketed during the pandemic, putting better housing and education options out of reach for many.
Open-enrollment policies, however, weaken the link between housing and schooling. These policies let families to enroll in any public school that has open seats.
There are two types of open enrollment. Interdistrict open enrollment allows families to attend schools outside of their assigned district; intradistrict open enrollment lets families enroll in schools inside their school district, but outside their attendance zone.
A proposal currently before the South Carolina state senate aims to establish mandatory interdistrict open enrollment statewide. Under the legislation, school districts could reject transfer applicants only for certain reasons, such as lack of capacity or teachers (though transfer students cannot displace students who are already residentially assigned). School districts would also be required to adhere to all federal antidiscrimination requirements and must implement a lottery to determine admission when transfer applications exceed available seats.
In Kansas, a proposal before the state senate’s education committee would require all school districts to participate in mandatory interdistrict open enrollment, so long as there are open seats. Just as with South Carolina’s proposal, transfer students could not displace residentially assigned students. Moreover, school districts would report the number of available seats to the Kansas Department of Education and post them on the district website. The proposal also prohibits charging transfer students tuition and includes a provision about providing transportation to non-resident students.
Finally, a Missouri proposal, already passed by the state house, would establish voluntary interdistrict open enrollment throughout the state. All students would be eligible to transfer to any participating school district that has seats available, and school districts would be required to post their open-enrollment policies and procedures on their websites.
To date, the South Carolina, Missouri, and Kansas open-enrollment proposals have received the approval of one state legislative chamber. If made into law, these measures would be a boon to families, greatly expanding their public education options.
Open enrollment is especially popular among families because it gives them access to schools with better academic records or more class offerings. Reason Foundation research indicates that students often use open enrollment to transfer to better schools. For instance, Texas students were more likely to transfer to school districts ranked as “A” and less likely to transfer to school districts with lower rankings, such as “C,” “D,” or “F.”
At the same time, open enrollment can serve as a catalyst for competition between schools, strengthening the education marketplace. California’s open enrollment program, the District of Choice program, was implemented in 1993; reports from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2016 and 2021 showed that school districts made efforts to improve when their assigned students transferred to other school districts. In some cases, districts that made improvements saw fewer students transferring to other districts.
Unlike private school choice, which affects only 1% of K-12 students, open enrollment could expand education options for approximately 90% of K-12 students, breaking public schools’ geographic monopoly through residential assignment. As policymakers consider student-centered education options, they should remember that open enrollment can be the rising tide that lifts all boats.
A version of this column previously appeared in RealClear Education.