While 2023 is being billed as the year of school choice, only 16 states have strong cross-district open enrollment laws, just 13 states have strong within-district open enrollment laws, and only 24 states prevent school districts from charging tuition to students transferring to public schools, according to the just-published report, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023.
Open enrollment lets students transfer from their residentially assigned school to any other public school with available seats. However, Reason Foundation’s new study shows how much most states still need to improve their open enrollment and public school transfer policies.
Nineteen states, including Texas, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia, score 0/5 on best practices in Reason’s state open enrollment laws analysis. Overall, 34 states disappointingly score one or zero out of five on Reason’s open enrollment best practices.
The best six states—Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah—score 4/5 in open enrollment best practices, which are allowing cross-district transfer, within-district transfers, requiring tuition-free transfers, and implementing transparent reporting procedures at the state and district levels so parents can identify schools with open seats available and schools and districts cannot selectively block transfers.
Currently, 26 states don’t prohibit public school districts from charging transfer students tuition to attend public schools. Some districts use tuition to effectively block low- and middle-income transfer students from transferring to those public schools.
For instance, New Hampshire’s Hanover School District charged transfer students more than $27,000 to attend its public schools for the 2023-24 school year. Calvert County Public Schools in Maryland charged non-resident transfers almost $10,400, and Lovejoy Independent School District in Texas charged over $9,000 to out-of-district students.
During the 2023 legislative sessions, six states significantly improved their open enrollment laws:
- Arkansas adopted statewide cross-district open enrollment.
- Idaho adopted statewide cross-district and within-district open enrollment and implemented transparent district-level reporting. The state is now among the six states scoring 4/5 in open enrollment best practices.
- Montana adopted statewide cross-district open enrollment and made public schools free to all children, banning the charging of tuition to transfer students.
- Nebraska improved the state’s transparency requirements and district reporting.
- North Dakota adopted statewide cross-district open enrollment and made public schools free to all children by prohibiting charging tuition to transfer students.
- West Virginia adopted statewide cross- and within-district open enrollment and now scores 3/5 in best practices.
As noted, Nebraska and Montana were the only states that changed their laws to make public schools free to all students in 2023.
Reason finds the most common weakness in states’ open enrollment practices is a need for more transparency and reporting from state education agencies (SEA). Only three states, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, require their agencies to report all essential open enrollment data annually. Policymakers in Wisconsin have used their annual SEA report to refine their open enrollment policy for decades, making it more fair, tweaking it to meet increased student demand, and creating incentives to encourage school districts to accept more transfer students.
More states should strengthen their open enrollment policies by making them statewide so all public school districts with available seats must participate. Allowing parents and students to choose the best public school should be a bipartisan policy reform. Good open enrollment laws remove needless barriers that stop students from accessing the public schools right for them.
From the states
Texas’s special session on education and Arizona policymakers spar over ESAs.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the state legislature into a special session on K-12 education. The State Senate has approved a bill to establish education savings accounts valued at $8,000 per student, but it faces staunch opposition from rural Republicans and House Democrats. Rep. Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) introduced a version of the ESA proposal in the House, with the proposed ESA amount valued at $6,160 per student. Additionally, the House proposal includes increased funding for teachers and school staff and a $340 increase in per-pupil spending, among other education initiatives. However, one House Republican described the proposal’s expansion of state testing as a poison pill for the bill. State Sen. Angela Paxton (R) also introduced a separate proposal that would establish the best open enrollment policy in the nation if signed into law. Texas currently scores 0/5 in Reason’s open enrollment best practices.
With more interest in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program than was forecast, Democrats say the program could bankrupt the state, while Republican policymakers refuse to cap the program. As of October 25, 69,252 students benefit from the ESA program, 872 more students than the projected number for the year. Republican House Speaker Ben Toma said ESAs are here to stay, Capitol Media Services reported.
What to watch
Nearly 87,000 students applied for Ohio’s universal EdChoice Scholarship, which provides families with a private school scholarship. The number of applicants this year is more than triple the number of participating students during the 2022-23 school year. The state has already approved more than 47% of EdChoice Scholarship applications. Students in grades K-8 and 9-12 can receive scholarships valued at more than $6,100 and $8,400 respectively each year.
Alabama policymakers say they plan to reintroduce an ESA proposal in 2024. In 2023, State Sen. Larry Stutts introduced a proposal that would provide $6,900 scholarships to students. While the proposal did not garner enough support to become law, support for the proposal has grown among state legislators and Gov. Kay Ivey in the interim.
Kirk Bangstad filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin’s voucher program, claiming that the policy is unconstitutional and harms public schools. The lawsuit has already garnered the support of State Superintendent of Schools Jill Underly. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and School Choice Wisconsin have vowed to oppose the lawsuit.
The number of students using New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) increased by 20% this school year. This year, 4,211 students will use their EFAs, valued at $5,255 per pupil on average, to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, and other approved education expenses.
Approximately, 5,000 Arkansas students will receive Education Freedom Accounts during the 2023-24 school year which they can use to purchase private school tuition and other education expenses. Each scholarship is valued up to $6,672. Currently, 1,500 EFAs are available to students this school year. The number of EFAs available will expand to 13,000 students during the 2024-25 school year.
Surfing the Pipeline
Michael Q. McShane, Ph.D. at EdChoice
“Enterprising leaders of teacher preparation programs should see the opportunity here and partner with alternative education leaders to create programs, majors, courses, and professional development opportunities. It would be good for all parties involved.”
Generation Lost: The Pandemic’s Lifetime Tax
Eric C. Hanushek at Education Next
“Historical earnings patterns make it is possible to estimate what the learning losses documented by NAEP will cost the average student in the Covid-cohort: 6 percent lower lifetime earnings than those not in this cohort. In other words, the pandemic learning losses for this cohort are equivalent, on average, to a 6 percent income tax surcharge throughout the students’ working lives. This rises to 8 percent for the average Black student, who suffered greater learning losses, according to NAEP. ”
Expert Report of Jay P. Greene, Ph.D.: New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights, et al. v. The State of New York
Jay Greene, Ph.D., and Lindsey Burke, Ph.D., at The Heritage Foundation
“Greene’s expert report reveals that Jackson’s evidence is plagued by errors and characterized by p-hacking, or specification-shopping, techniques with which researchers alter their analyses, deliberately or unconsciously, to ensure that they yield desired results. The practice of p-hacking or specification-shopping renders the results unreliable.”