During the pandemic, K-12 public schools experienced massive enrollment drops as families opted for private schools, learning pods, or homeschooling. Despite regaining some students, 1.2 million seats remain empty in public schools nationwide.
In some cases, this means that top-performing school districts now have swathes of open seats. For instance, the New York Times reported last month that Orange County’s Capistrano Unified School District — an A-ranked school district in the state — has lost more than 2,800 students since 2020.
Enrollment decline isn’t unique to California. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Return to Learn Tracker, Kansas City’s top-performing Olathe Public Schools District lost more than 800 students between 2020 and 2022. Similarly, in Illinois, the highly ranked Barrington Community School Unit #220 lost nearly 500 students since 2020.
Unfortunately, just because seats are available at top-notch public schools doesn’t mean new students can enroll there.
In most states, where you live determines where you can go to school. This method of residential assignment intertwines property wealth and schooling because high-ranking public schools are often located in more expensive neighborhoods.
Open enrollment, however, can break down the barriers that prevent families from accessing public schools other than their residentially assigned ones. This form of school choice allows families to enroll in any public school if there are open seats, thus weakening the connection between housing and schooling. Research from Texas and Florida shows that families in states with strong open-enrollment laws use the policy to find better educational opportunities for their children.
But a crucial component of a good open-enrollment policy is mandatory participation for all school districts. This stops protectionist school districts from opting out of the program, even when they have open seats.
Ohio’s voluntary open-enrollment policy is a perfect example of how suburban school districts often exploit this weakness by refusing to accept transfer students from the state’s metropolitan or rural school districts. Cleveland’s highly rated Lakewood City School District opts out of the state’s open enrollment. This means that students residentially assigned to the neighboring Cleveland Municipal School District — where only 32 percent of students scored at or above the state’s proficient reading level — cannot attend the better schools in the Lakewood City district, even though Lakewood City’s enrollment declined by nearly 470 students since 2020.
To make matters worse, Lakewood City School District’s boundaries reflect historic housing redlining. Although now illegal, the lingering effects of housing redlining will continue to affect the public-education options available to families in cities across the country, as long as school assignment is tied to housing.
Protectionist public-school districts are quick to oppose mandatory open enrollment since the policy would weaken their exclusive educational enclaves, where the price of admission is a pricey mortgage.
For instance, even though Olathe Public Schools District had more than 800 open seats, two Kansas superintendents of top-performing school districts, including Olathe, unsuccessfully opposed a robust open-enrollment proposal.
“While we can certainly empathize with parents in lower-performing districts . . . without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now,” they wrote.
Despite such opposition, this year, Kansas policy-makers established a robust open-enrollment law that allows families to transfer to schools outside their assigned school district, assuming there are open seats. Kansas’s law is exemplary. It requires school districts to publicly report the number of open seats by school and grade level on the district website. Moreover, the Kansas Department of Education will annually audit school capacity and non-resident enrollment to ensure that school districts are reporting accurately.
More states should follow Kansas’s lead and establish open-enrollment laws that expand school choice by allowing students to transfer to schools outside their residentially assigned school district. With public-school enrollments declining nationwide, many school districts can no longer claim to reject transfer students because they don’t have enough seats available.
A version of this commentary first ran in National Review.