State policymakers across the country are considering open enrollment policies that weaken the link between housing and schooling by allowing students to enroll in the public school of their choice. There’s a good reason for this: research indicates students tend to transfer to higher-performing school districts and enroll in specialized programs that are otherwise unavailable to them. However, while those outcomes are great, some legislators and school officials in states considering open enrollment often express concerns about whether the policy will negatively affect high school athletics. The good news is it doesn’t have to.
Last year, Oklahoma legislators passed a historic reform prohibiting school districts from denying transfer requests except in limited circumstances such as capacity constraints or student absenteeism. As a result, families now have more access to educational opportunities outside of their residentially-assigned public schools, including schools across district boundaries.
When the legislation was being considered, concerns were raised that the new law would usher in the Wild West for student-athletes, where transfer decisions would be driven by on-the-field factors rather than academics. While student-athletes should be free to transfer to schools of their choice in the same way as students focused on science or music do, these worries were unfounded as Senate Bill 783 left the athletics status quo in place for the state. The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) still sets eligibility requirements and, under its rules, student-athletes may not participate in extramural athletic competitions for one year unless granted a hardship waiver by the OSSAA.
In fact, the only mention of athletics in Oklahoma’s open enrollment law is that local education agencies “cannot accept or deny transfers on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disability, proficiency level in English, measure of achievement, aptitude, or athletic ability.” Athletic ability can’t factor into a school district’s enrollment decisions, and if demand at a school is greater than available seats then students must be admitted on a first-come-first-served basis.
In Arizona, where open enrollment is immensely popular with both families and school districts, student athletic eligibility decisions are also made by a third party. As with Oklahoma, the Grand Canyon State’s policy only states that admission may not be based on athletic ability, and is otherwise silent on athletics. That job is left to the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), which unfairly requires student-athletes to sit out half a season when they transfer to a new school, even if their residence has changed.
These states’ policies, while unfair to student-athletes, prove that athletics need not stand in policymakers’ way of crafting strong open enrollment policies. However, to better ensure students who want to participate in athletics have access to the schools that best meet their learning needs they should follow Florida’s lead on the issue.
In 2016, Florida passed the Controlled Open Enrollment law that allows students to transfer to any school in the state with few exceptions and also mandates immediate eligibility for student-athletes. This means, unlike in Arizona or Oklahoma, families in Florida don’t have to make difficult tradeoffs between academics and athletics and can instead make decisions based solely on what’s best for their circumstances, which is impossible for distant bureaucrats to assess.
A common pushback against Florida’s approach is the claim that participating in athletics is a privilege for students and shouldn’t be prioritized over academics. It’s easy for some to sympathize with this critique, but then why aren’t similar restrictions applied to other privileges such as debate club, school bands, or performing arts?
Extracurricular activities—sports or otherwise—help develop positive skills and traits that aren’t readily taught in classrooms, and forcing families to make arbitrary choices seems to be more about adult agendas than what’s best for kids. Granting student-athletes immediate eligibility can even help with socialization and adjusting to their new environment.
In any event, evidence from Arizona suggests that punitive policies don’t always work as intended. Even after the Arizona Interscholastic Association adopted more restrictive rules for the 2016-2017 school year in an effort to curtail athletic-related transfers, they still increased in subsequent years. The only difference was these student-athletes were punished and weren’t immediately eligible to play for their new schools.
For policymakers, the priority should be to adopt universal open enrollment that gives families access to greater educational opportunities, and there’s no reason to let concerns about who plays for which high school team prevent this from happening. Policymakers should be giving families the freedom to choose the schools that best suit them and should also consider eliminating restrictive provisions that unfairly punish student-athletes.