When Oklahoma state legislators approved a new K-12 open enrollment law in 2021, school choice advocates celebrated the reform for providing students with more options within the public school system. Implemented at the onset of the 2022-23 school year, Oklahoma’s mandatory cross-district open enrollment policy allows nonresident students to enroll in neighboring school districts regardless of their educational needs, academic performance, or athletic ability. The law also allows transfers at any point during the school year and allows applications to be denied only if a school district lacks open seats in the appropriate grade level.
But despite having a strong open enrollment law, Oklahoma is still dealing with a problem faced by other states with strong student transfer policies: how to ensure school districts aren’t arbitrarily defining capacity to keep neighboring students out.
Even in school choice-friendly states like Arizona and Florida, problems with protectionist school districts have lingered. In many cases, there seems to be a desire to preserve a public school system where families must purchase expensive real estate to access these public schools—thus, keeping low-income students out. Objecting to open enrollment legislation in Kansas, for example, two school district superintendents submitted written testimony last year that admitted, “Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now.”
These problems raise important questions about how public school districts can be held accountable when they don’t open their doors to transfer students.
An October report from Oklahoma-based public radio station KOSU indicated that nearly 11,000 students in the state requested a district transfer under the new law during the summer leading into the 2022-23 school year. At the time, roughly 8,400 of these applications were approved, 500 were pending, and 2,000 were denied. Most of the denials were reportedly due to insufficient school district capacity, i.e., a lack of space.
In the fall of 2022, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs observed that the definition of capacity is set by individual school districts, causing the transfer rules to “appear haphazard or even arbitrary from district to district.” This variation in definitions has disproportionately affected city students, with KOSU noting that although denials were relatively uncommon, the denials were “mostly concentrated in suburban and exurban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.”
Lacking a standardized definition of district capacity isn’t a problem unique to Oklahoma. Arizona’s open enrollment law requires its school districts to report each school’s capacity by grade level and update the figure every 12 weeks — but never elaborates on how districts should determine capacity in the first place.
Florida’s Controlled Open Enrollment law includes more language on how school districts should assess school capacity, saying they can’t exceed a statewide maximum class size limit and must “incorporate the specifications, plans, elements and commitments contained in the school district educational facilities plan and the long-term work programs.” But even this definition of capacity still affords districts plenty of room to deny transfer applicants arbitrarily.
But there are other routes that could circumvent this problem. The Foundation for Excellence in Education has suggested that school districts reserve space for nonresident students up front, making lack of capacity an unacceptable reason for denial. While intriguing, this proposal could go too far since there are certainly instances where schools truly don’t have space for additional students. Some flexibility is needed.
Another promising solution is to focus on more carrot and less stick. States should consider strengthening incentives for school districts to accept transfer students. While some states are worse than others, all state funding systems have provisions that prevent education dollars from following students who cross district lines. These nonportable dollars often come from local tax levies or state funding streams that aren’t sensitive to changes in enrollment. For districts evaluating transfer applications, it’s easy to see how a lack of funding portability can make them reluctant to receive a nonresident student.
Research from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that funding portability can have a real impact on how willing school districts are to participate in open enrollment. To strengthen incentives, state legislators should reduce school district reliance on these kinds of local revenue streams or find ways to make these funds move with students to the schools of their choice.
Coming up with a clear and enforceable definition of school capacity is difficult and won’t solve every problem in states’ open enrollment systems. Beyond getting more punitive with school districts that close their doors to outsiders, legislators should ensure that financial incentives make welcoming nonresident transfer students too lucrative for school districts to pass up.