School district and student attendance zone boundaries are geographic barriers that long have divided communities across South Carolina.
All too often, these attendance boundaries reflect the housing redlining of the 1930s, which intentionally segregated communities by race and affluence, and it is past time that we allow students the freedom to find a school district that best fits their unique educational needs.
Thankfully, a proposal that passed from South Carolina’s Senate Committee on Education and is before the full Senate could help weaken the tie between housing and education quality in the state. The legislation would allow families to transfer to schools with available capacity outside of their assigned school district via open enrollment policies.
As education researcher Tim DeRoche noted in his book, “A Fine Line,” “poor families know that there are good or even great public schools in their district, maybe even just down the road. But their children aren’t allowed to attend those schools. Who is allowed to attend? Wealthier people who pay through their mortgage or their rent to access these public schools that are ‘public’ in name only.”
DeRoche’s claim is backed by a 2019 U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee report that found higher property values correlated with better education options. Paying a premium when purchasing or renting a home is the hidden cost affluent families pay for guaranteed access to high-performing public schools.
But if the proposed legislation, S. 544, becomes law, this reality could start to change for families in South Carolina.
Open enrollment breaks the housing barriers associated with good education options. For example, a single mom may pass a well-rated elementary school with open capacity every day on her way to work, but because of the state’s school district boundaries, she is unable to enroll her third-grader and must put him on the bus to his school that is 30 minutes in the other direction. Open enrollment policies require that school districts allow students who live in other areas of a community access to open seats.
In Florida, families often use the state’s strong open enrollment policy to transfer to better school districts. Reason Foundation’s Vittorio Nastasi found that more than two-thirds of Florida transfer students crossing school district boundaries in the 2018-19 school year enrolled in districts with graduation rates above the state mean and more than 90% of inter-district transfer students attend A- or B-rated school districts.
South Carolina’s proposal would require school districts to adhere to all federal desegregation requirements, permit families to list school preferences and implement a lottery system when transfer applications outnumber available seats.
Under the proposed policy, districts could reject transfer students for limited reasons, such as a lack of space or teaching staff for a particular program, or the applicant was expelled from their previous school. Moreover, no residentially assigned students could be displaced by transfer students.
But, most importantly, the proposal requires all public schools to participate in open enrollment. By not permitting schools the ability to opt-out of open enrollment students will have access to all the best schools with open seats.
Still, South Carolina policymakers could improve the legislation by requiring the Board of Education to track transfer students and the number of rejected applications. This would help to ensure all schools fully participate in open enrollment.
Adopting strong open enrollment policies would be a boon to South Carolina families whose education options would no longer depend on where they can afford to live.
A version of this column previously appeared at Center Square.