For decades, K-12 students in the U.S. have been assigned to a public school based on where their families live within an attendance zone or catchment area for their local school district. This method of school assignment inextricably links public schooling to housing and property wealth. As a result, the quality of a student’s public education often depends on where their parents can afford to live or purchase a home. Furthermore, school district and attendance zone boundaries often mirror historic racial and socio-economic divisions within communities.
In fact, a 2019 report from the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee found:
“The average U.S. ZIP code associated with the highest quality (A+) public elementary school has a 4-fold ($486,104) higher median home price than the average neighborhood associated with the lowest quality (D or less) public elementary schools ($122,061).”
In his book A Fine Line, education researcher Tim DeRoche noted that price premiums for homes where the assigned public school had higher test scores would incur buyers extra costs. For families living in Los Angeles or New York, that extra cost could mean that they could pay “$100,000 or more just to gain access to specific coveted ‘public’ schools,” DeRoche reported.
Some families, desperate to escape their geographically assigned schools, commit what is treated as enrollment fraud by providing a false home address to enroll their children in better or safer schools. For example, 37 suburban school districts in Pennsylvania disenrolled 1,603 students between 2014-2017 because families pretended to reside inside the school district’s geographic boundaries.
School choice alternatives, such as tax-credit scholarships, private school scholarships, and charter schools let families pursue education options beyond their geographically assigned schools. But such options are often limited by state-imposed eligibility restrictions and participation caps. For instance, only 6% of students are enrolled in charter schools, and only 1% percent of students benefit from private school choice programs nationwide.
State policymakers could drastically expand the public K-12 education options available to families through open enrollment policies, which diminish the role of geographic school district and attendance zone boundaries by allowing students to transfer to any public school with available seating.
Students transfer between public schools for a variety of reasons, such as safety or specialized learning environments. However, research from Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Colorado indicate that students tend to transfer to school districts with higher academic performance. In particular, Reason Foundation research showed that transfer students in Texas were more likely to transfer to school districts ranked as “A” and less likely to transfer to school districts with lower rankings, such as “C,” “D” or “F.”
But not all states have open enrollment laws that allow their students expanded educational opportunities.
There are six essential components to a good open enrollment law:
- Mandatory inter-district open enrollment: School districts should be required to accept all transfer students from other school districts. Schools should only be allowed to reject transfer students for a limited number of reasons, such as exceeding school capacity. All open enrollment policies, including all applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted online on school districts’ websites.
- Mandatory intra-district open enrollment: School districts should be required to allow their students to transfer to schools across attendance zone boundaries. Again, school districts should only be allowed to reject transfer requests for limited reasons, such as exceeding school capacity. Policies, including all applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted online on districts’ websites.
- Transparent Reporting Requirements: The state education agency (SEA) should annually collect and publicly report key open enrollment data by school district. The information shared with parents and the public should include school district transfer policies, the number of transfer students accepted or rejected by each district, and the reasons for rejections.
- No Tuition and Fees for Public Schools: Public school districts should be prohibited from charging transfer students tuition and/or fees.
- School Capacity Reporting Requirements: Public school districts should be annually required to publicly report seating capacity by school and grade level. This ensures that families can utilize every seat available in schools.
- Flexible Transportation Options: School districts should be permitted to bus voluntary transfer students across district boundaries without special permission, mileage caps, or other arrangements.
These reforms would vastly improve states’ open enrollment laws and start to separate K-12 public education from housing and property wealth. While many states already permit voluntary open enrollment, these laws are severely undermined by “opt-in” provisions which make school district participation in open enrollment voluntary.
Without mandatory participation requirements, protectionist school districts refuse to participate in open enrollment leaving children in neighboring school districts with fewer or no alternatives.
For instance, the affluent suburban school districts surrounding major cities, such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, and Dayton, refuse to participate in Ohio’s open enrollment program. This means that children residing in the inner city or in nearby rural areas who would benefit most from open enrollment remain stuck in their geographically assigned school districts.
Robust open enrollment laws must be accompanied by mandatory participation requirements. This ensures that protectionist districts or schools can no longer maintain their geographic monopoly.
Florida’s open enrollment law, which already incorporates five of the six policy suggestions proposed above, could serve as an ideal open enrollment model for other states. All school districts in the Sunshine State are required to participate in both inter-and intra-district open enrollment. Florida’s public schools must regularly report the number of available seats by grade level and cannot charge transfer students’ families tuition or fees. School districts can also provide transportation options to transfer students.
Nearly 273,500 students participated in the state’s open enrollment option during the 2018-2019 school year. Reason Foundation’s Vittorio Nastasi reported that during that school year, “Over two-thirds of transfer students crossing school district boundaries enrolled in districts with graduation rates above the state mean and more than 90 percent of inter-district transfer students attend A- or B-rated school districts.”
However, Florida’s open enrollment law can still be improved. Florida policymakers should require the state education agency to publish data on transfer students, ensuring that schools do not arbitrarily reject transfer applicants. This update would make Florida’s open enrollment law one of the strongest in the nation.
Erasing school district and attendance zone boundaries can help eliminate the lingering effects of archaic and discriminatory housing policies. Strong open enrollment laws are key to ensuring that all children have access to an education that meets their needs, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or geographic location.