Despite public school advocates’ claims that public schools serve everyone and are bastions of democracy, many public schools have a remarkably undemocratic quality: kids who don’t reside inside a district’s geographic boundaries are unwelcome.
Unfortunately, high housing costs block many students from attending schools that are better fit for them because their parents can’t afford expensive mortgages or rents often associated with highly-ranked public schools. In 2022, the superintendents of two high-performing school districts in Kansas submitted public testimony opposing an open enrollment proposal and admitting they turn down “inquiries almost daily from non-resident parents trying to enroll” because the parents are seeking “superior special education services.”
“Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now,” the superintendents wrote.
Despite districts openly trying to block low- and middle-income families from their public schools, Kansas law now requires school districts to serve students regardless of residence. Nationally, over one million students used open enrollment or public school transfer law in 11 states during the 2021-22 school year. Today, 73% of parents with children in school support open enrollment, receiving more than two-thirds of support from all partisan groups— Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, according to a December 2023 Morning Consult/EdChoice poll.
Last year, three states passed strong open enrollment proposals into law with overwhelming bipartisan support—over 85% of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in those states voted for the bills. California operates three cross-district and one within-district open enrollment programs that could be consolidated and improved by requiring all school districts to participate. As California’s schools face looming budget crises, school closures, and declining enrollments, public school advocates should recognize that open enrollment works to their advantage in three critical ways.
First, strong open enrollment laws help keep public funds in public schools. Many school districts across the state are losing large numbers of students, likely leading to school closures in coming years. Open enrollment gives public school students educational options, reducing the risk of students transferring to charter or private schools. Accordingly, it minimizes attrition in public schools.
For example, nearly 13% of Arizona’s public school students used open enrollment during the 2021-22 school year, with almost 87% of them crossing district boundaries. States such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Delaware provide funding solutions that ensure that education money follows transfer students to their new public schools.
Second, open enrollment’s competitive pressures can help make public schools better. California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office’s 2016 and 2021 reports about the state’s cross-district open enrollment program showed that school districts improved because the program incentivized them to compete for students. LAO found some school districts experiencing attrition responded by improving their educational offerings, reducing the number of student transfers, and even attracting new students.
Additionally, a report by the University of Chicago’s Becker-Friedman Institute for Economics found that within-district open enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District caused its schools to improve, with the district’s lowest-performing schools improving the most. The report also found increases in student achievement and college enrollment when comparing participating students with students who didn’t participate.
Finally, open enrollment also makes schools more diverse and creates greater opportunities for students with life-long effects. It reduces the number of kids who go to schools based on residential assignment, which siloes students into socioeconomic enclaves and makes it harder for students from less-affluent families to develop the bridging social capital that Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s research shows is key to upward mobility.
Open enrollment helps public schools remain true to their mission to take all comers. It also benefits school districts, encouraging them to improve and develop innovative solutions to attract students and address budget problems. Open enrollment is a win-win school choice policy for California’s public school advocates, school districts and students.
A version of this column first appeared in the Orange County Register.