For decades public schools enjoyed an uncontested monopoly through residential assignment boundaries. These boundaries sort students into public schools based on where they live, inextricably tying housing and schooling together. While most families long accepted these government-imposed barriers, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced school closures reminded many students and parents of the arbitrary unfairness of this system.
During the pandemic, school district-wide policies often dictated if individual schools stayed remote, hybrid, or in-person, regardless of the needs of students. The district lines meant that schools that were a better fit for individual students were sometimes just out of reach because their families lived on the wrong side of an attendance boundary.
For instance, California students assigned to Brentwood Union Elementary School District were still fully remote on March 29, 2021, even though students assigned to the neighboring Byron Union School District, just a few miles away, had reopened for hybrid and in-person learning 14 weeks earlier.
Unfair and random decisions like this helped spur an explosion of parent engagement and school choice legislation intended to empower parents and students. New policies, such as open enrollment, would allow families to choose any public school as long as space is available at that school. Currently, 74% of parents support open enrollment, according to a recent EdChoice national survey.
Rather than depending on their home addresses or school administrators’ decisions, open enrollment gives families a seat at the educational bargaining table. They can vote with their feet by moving to a different public school without selling their homes or leaving their communities.
Despite the greater momentum for school choice legislation, only 12 states have robust open enrollment laws that allow students to transfer to public schools outside their assigned school districts or catchment area boundaries. The good news is that a number of states have begun to make changes, moving open enrollment policies through their legislative sessions. These open enrollment proposals would weaken flawed residential assignment policies and greatly expand public school choice options for nearly seven million students.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently signed the LEARNS Act (The Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety Act) into law. It eliminates the state’s arbitrary cap on the number of students allowed to transfer and ensures that Arkansas students have access to open seats in public schools through cross-district open enrollment.
Similarly, laws proposed in North Dakota (House Bill 1376), Montana (H. B. 203), South Carolina (H. 3843 and S. 315), Texas (Senate Bill 418), and Idaho (S.B. 1125) would let students transfer to public schools in other districts that have available capacity. The Texas and Idaho proposals would also allow students to transfer to public schools with open seats in their assigned school district but outside their attendance zone.
Additionally, the bills in North Dakota, Montana, and Texas would make public schools free to all transfer students. This means public schools could no longer charge transfer students the cost of tuition. For instance, some public school districts in Texas charge astronomical tuition costs—as much as $9,000 a year per student—to students trying to transfer from other public school districts. Idaho’s open enrollment proposal also includes a vital transparency provision, requiring every school district to post its available capacity by grade level on its website at least four times each school year.
Policymakers should ensure they have the tools to continue to refine their open enrollment policies by collecting and publishing detailed reports annually for parents and researchers. For each public school district, the state education agency should show the number of transfer students it accepted that year, the number of rejected applications, and why applicants were denied. For example, Wisconsin’s policymakers used these types of reports to help improve their policies, and the state’s open enrollment transfers grew 28-fold between the 1997-98 and 2020-21 school years.
It is excellent news for students and parents that several states are finally untethering public schools from housing. Zip codes shouldn’t determine children’s educational opportunities.
A version of this column appeared on RealClearEducation.com.