When public schools keep certain students out—or make them pay to attend
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When public schools keep certain students out—or make them pay to attend

Because of loopholes in Ohio’s open enrollment laws many of the state’s highest-ranked public schools remain out of reach for most children. 

Imagine a situation where it’s easier for families to enroll their children in some private schools than in some public schools. This is true for Ohio students, especially those from low-income families.

As of this school year, most of the state’s families became eligible for EdChoice Scholarships. This means that any Ohio student can access public funds to pay for tuition at one of 462 participating private schools in the state.

However, the scholarship can’t be used at public schools, and because of loopholes in Ohio’s open enrollment laws — which are supposed to allow students to transfer to public schools outside their residential zone — many of the state’s highest-ranked public schools remain out of reach for most children. 

For instance, 35 of Ohio’s 97 five-star-rated school districts have chosen not to participate in open enrollment, making them inaccessible to students who don’t live within their boundaries.

Often, the only way for students to access these highly ranked public schools is to move. This is easier said than done, since the cost of public schooling is often hidden in expensive mortgages or rents. 

In Ohio, the median home sale price in January 2024 was $215,300, requiring an annual household income of about $64,000 to obtain a typical mortgage. Yet home sale prices in non-participating five-star districts averaged nearly $351,000, according to data collected by Niche, a platform that gathers information on school districts. 

For instance, in the five-star Indian Hill Exempted Village School District, the median home sales price is more than $1.1 million. Numbers like these make districts like Indian Hill, and their top-quality schools, effectively off limits to middle- and low-income families.

Currently, 107 of Ohio’s 658 public school districts don’t participate in open enrollment. The Ohio Department of Education & Workforce awarded 52% of them four or five stars in student achievement on the state’s Performance Index for the 2022-23 school year, based on statewide exam scores. Notably, these non-participating districts include 22 of the top 50 in the state. 

Some of them could likely accommodate transfer students, since K-12 enrollment statewide declined by 5.3% — a loss of nearly 81,000 students — between the 2018-19 and 2023-24 school years. For instance, the highly rated and non-participating Beachwood City and Tipp City school districts saw their enrollment decrease by 8% and 7%, respectively.

Without strong open enrollment laws, these districts can continue to shut out students who could fill those empty seats. However, there is one way for families to get their kids into some of these districts without moving: They can buy their way in. 

Under Ohio law, school districts that opt out of the state’s open enrollment program can charge tuition to transfer students at a rate equal to or less than an amount established annually by the state Department of Education. Of the 107 districts, a Reason Foundation investigation found that 22, or 21%, charge public school tuition to non-resident students. Another 46 allow district employees who live outside the zone to enroll their kids for a fee.

Ohio Public School Districts’ Annual Tuition Rates Charged to Transfer Students:

In some cases, these districts operate more like private schools than public schools, because admission is often at the superintendent’s discretion. For instance, Northmont requires that applicants have at least a 3.0 grade-point average. Other districts, such as Centerville City, permit tuition-based transfers, but only for children of their teachers.

Of the districts charging tuition, the average fee is about $11,000 per student per school year, the Reason Foundation investigation found. That’s $11,000 annually to attend a supposedly public school. At least 12 districts charge $10,000 per transfer annually, while nine districts charge less. 

By contrast, private schools in Ohio charge about $7,900 in tuition, on average. Most families can use EdChoice Scholarships to cover $6,000 participating private schools, these scholarships cannot be used to pay tuition at public schools. This means private school tuition can be more affordable than some public schools. 

When school districts can sell their seats they lose their democratic qualities and become de facto private schools. Public schools should be free to all students, not just those whose families can afford to live there — or pay.

A version of this column appeared on The74Million.org