Open Enrollment Provides Substantial Benefits to Students and Families
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Commentary

Open Enrollment Provides Substantial Benefits to Students and Families

Examining the research on the benefits and challenges of inter-district school choice, a policy that doesn't receive enough attention, so that policymakers can begin working to improve their states' laws and practices.

Many American families have few options outside of their residentially assigned schools, but it doesn’t have to be this way. One way policymakers can put parents in the driver’s seat is through a form of public school choice that everyone can get on board with — inter-district school choice, which allows families to enroll in schools across district boundaries.

Also known as open enrollment, 43 states allow inter-district transfers but most give school districts at least some discretion over admissions decisions. For example, in Texas, school districts aren’t required to accept transfer students and can even charge families tuition to their public schools. Lovejoy Independent School District, for instance, charges transfer students up to $14,000 on top of stringent admissions standards that include academic and attendance requirements.

It’s a similar story in Tennessee, where students aren’t always given the opportunity to enroll outside of their zoned school district —even when seats are available at public schools. Unfortunately, these examples are not the exception. Very few states have strong open enrollment laws.

While there is surprisingly little research on inter-district enrollment, an overarching theme emerges from several key studies on the topic: families benefit from this form of education choice but state and district policymakers must do more to provide all kids with opportunities, even in states with strong policies already in place.

A brief summary of these studies is provided in the tables below, which are categorized based on three dimensions. Importantly, this is not a comprehensive analysis of all of the research literature but it is instead meant to provide critical insight into the benefits and challenges of a policy that doesn’t receive enough attention so that policymakers can begin working to improve their states’ laws and practices.

I. Motivation to Participate and Outcomes

Research on the effects of open enrollment on student outcomes is quite limited but there is good evidence that students tend to transfer to higher-performing school districts. For example, Randall Reback found that student achievement levels are stronger predictors of transfer demand than socio-economic characteristics, and Deven Carlson,  Lesley Lavery, and John F. Witte found evidence that academic quality is the largest determinant of open enrollment flows. Additionally, an analysis of California’s District of Choice program found that families transfer for a variety of reasons (e.g. specialized programming and bullying) and showed that districts that were losing students to open enrollment took meaningful steps to engage parents and members of the community.

Dimension

Study

State(s)

Key Findings

Motivation to Participate and Outcomes

Carlson & Lavertu (2017)

Ohio

Achievement benefits for consistent participants compared to non-participants, with the largest effects for black students and those in high-poverty urban areas. The study also found evidence of improvement in high school graduation rates.

Taylor (2016)

California

Students transfer school districts for a variety of reasons including to participate in programs not available in their home districts (e.g. college preparatory coursework, performing arts, engineering, etc.), to escape bullying, and for specialized instructional philosophies such as project-based learning. Most districts with exiting students took steps to address parental and community concerns such has holding meetings and analyzing data to better understand why families were leaving. Both Districts of Choice and Home Districts improved their test scores over time.

Lavery & Carlson (2014)

Colorado

The average participating student lives in a school district that is smaller, offers fewer AP courses and has higher dropout rates compared to districts in which non-participants reside.

Carlson, Lavery, and Witte (2011)

Colorado, Minnesota

Evidence that academic quality is the largest determinant of open enrollment flows. Any increase in racial or economic segregation caused by open enrollment is likely due to parental desire to increase academic opportunities.

Reback (2008)

Minnesota

Student achievement levels, as measured by test scores, are stronger predictors of transfer demand than both socio-economic characteristics and district expenditures, which suggests that families care more about outcomes than inputs.

 

II. Student Participation

Although there is evidence that disadvantaged student populations—including low-income and black students—are demanding open enrollment, it is clear that more can be done to boost and maintain their participation rates. For example, Joshua Cowen, Benjamin Creed, and Venessa Kessler found that while black students are more likely to open enroll they are also most likely to stop participating, while Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu found evidence suggesting that observed racial differences in participation result from an opportunity gap. Other disadvantaged populations, such as English language learners and students classified as special education, also appear to have lower participation rates.

Dimension

Study

State(s)

Key Findings

Student Participation

Ragland & Hulse (2018)

Colorado

Participating students are slightly more likely to be white and less likely to be low-income, English language learners or special education.

Carlson & Lavertu (2017)

Ohio

Participation is disproportionately white, more affluent, and higher achieving. However, racial differences disappear when comparing participating to non-participating students in the same district, suggesting that observed differences result from an opportunity gap.

Taylor (2016)

California

Participating students have varied demographic backgrounds, including about 27 percent low-income and 65 percent non-white. However, the share of participating low-income students is lower than the share for home school districts.

Cowen, Creed, & Kessler (2015)

Michigan

Black, low-income, and lower-performing students are more likely than their peers to participate in open enrollment. However, they’re also the most likely among participants to exit the program.

Lavery & Carlson (2014)

Colorado

Black students had the highest participation rates while Hispanic students had the lowest. Students classified as economically disadvantaged, English language learners, and special education were less likely to participate than their counterparts. However, participation rates increased over time for all demographic groups.

 

III. District Participation & Characteristics

Districts vary in the extent to which they enroll transfer students. For example, Carlson and Lavertu found that the nearly 19 percent of Ohio districts that don’t accept open enrollers are more affluent and clustered around the state’s “Big 8” districts. Additionally, there is evidence indicating that districts reject transfer students for reasons unrelated to capacity constraints as Reback found a relationship between transfer seats offered (i.e. supply) and differences in student performance among neighboring districts. Lastly, there is also evidence that low-achieving school districts tend to lose more students to open enrollment.

Dimension

Study

State(s)

Key Findings

District Participation and Characteristics

Ragland & Hulse (2018)

Colorado

Higher performing school districts tend to enroll more transfer students while low-performing districts have higher exit rates. There doesn’t appear to be a relationship between per-pupil spending and inter-district enrollment trends as families aren’t necessarily transferring to higher-funded districts.

Carlson & Lavertu (2017)

Ohio

Nearly 19 percent of school districts don’t accept transfer students, with non-participating districts clustered around the state’s “Big 8” districts. Non-participating districts are more affluent and higher-achieving than participating districts.

Taylor (2016)

California

Most participating districts in California’s District of Choice program are small and rural. However, school districts with the greatest participation levels are the medium-to-large-sized districts.

Cowen, Creed, & Kessler (2015)

Michigan

The extent to which school districts enroll transfer students varies statewide.

Carlson, Lavery, and Witte (2011)

Colorado, Minnesota Low achieving school districts lose students at a disproportionally higher rate and tend to receive fewer transfer students. Most transfers take place between relatively high-achieving districts.

Reback (2008)

Minnesota

A correlation is observed between districts’ supply decisions and differences in student performance among neighboring school districts, even though districts are only permitted to reject transfer students based on capacity. “Given similar levels of demand, districts with substantially greater test scores and socioeconomic characteristics than a neighboring district are much more likely to reject transfer applicants.”

 

The benefits of inter-district enrollment are indeed promising. So what can state and district policymakers do to ensure that all kids, especially disadvantaged populations, have access to such opportunities?

There are four primary policy levers they can pull.

#1: Adopt a Statewide Open Enrollment Policy

Policymakers should consider a universal open enrollment policy by looking to states that have relatively strong policies such as Colorado and Florida. For example, in 2016 Florida passed its Controlled Open Enrollment law, which allows families to enroll in any public school in the state provided it has not reached capacity and a child is not currently subject to expulsion or suspension. There are other minor stipulations, such as preferential treatment for students residing in the district, but, otherwise, all of the state’s 67 districts must participate. Available data on the program are promising and show an increase in participation of more than 50 percent since 2016 with over 90 percent transferring to A or B rated districts.

#2: School Finance Reforms to Ensure that Dollars Are Allocated Fairly

School finance is a critical element of inter-district enrollment as districts should be financially compensated for enrolling additional students. As Reback explains, “Administrators set the supply of transfer spaces in their districts by comparing the marginal benefits with the marginal costs of accepting additional transfer students,” and financial considerations are a vital component of this assessment. Ideally, this means that dollars follow students seamlessly across district boundaries such that funding is based on individual students rather than variables such as property wealth and local tax rates. In other words, a student should receive the same funding allotment regardless of what district they attend within a state.

Every state formula is unique and there isn’t one way to accomplish this, but as a general rule, the role of local operating revenue should be mitigated or eliminated entirely. In 2008, Indiana took an important step in this direction by largely abolishing local property tax levies as a source of general fund education revenue, which helped to usher-in robust inter-district enrollment as the number of transfer students went from fewer than 3,000 in 2009 to more than 11,300 by 2011. Today, approximately 68,000 students attend schools outside of their residentially assigned school districts. Another model for policymakers to look toward is California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which limits local operating dollars and allocates funding based on a weighted-student funding formula.

#3: Robust Transparency

Both states and school districts have roles to play in maximizing transparency around open enrollment. States should create a school choice report that includes open enrollment data such as transfers in, transfers out, transfer applications rejected, and transfer tuition collected (if applicable). Of course, this report could also include charter schools and other school choice participation figures to provide even greater context. To do this, policymakers can look toward Indiana, which has a Public Corporation Transfer Report that breaks down these figures by school district. Additionally, school districts should be required to report their transfer policies and also capacity rates for each school on their websites. District officials should already be using these data for strategic planning purposes and it makes sense to publicly report them so that stakeholders not only know how many seats are available at schools, but also whether districts are operating efficiently. Florida’s Controlled Open Enrollment law, which requires such reporting, is an example of how this could be implemented.

#4: Transportation

Ragland and Hulse’s research on Colorado highlights transportation as a primary barrier for families pursuing open enrollment options, finding that “Time spent driving students to school can conflict with work schedules for parents, and public transit options can be scarce in many areas, making open enrollment functionally impossible for families without a transportation solution.”

A good first step for states to address this problem is to remove needless barriers for school districts and families. For example, in states such as Texas busing across district boundaries is prohibited unless special permission is received from a student’s resident district. States and school districts could also seek innovative solutions, such as putting parents in control over transportation dollars. One possibility is offering transportation scholarship accounts to disadvantaged families that could open the door to additional options.

Conclusion

In the 21st century, it no longer makes sense to confine educational opportunities to rigid and often arbitrary district boundaries. Policymakers should put families in the driver’s seat by reducing or even eliminating the role of district boundaries in determining school assignments. Open enrollment can provide substantial benefits to families, but more must be done to ensure that all students have opportunities outside of their zip code.

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.