Funding Education Opportunity: Open enrollment momentum, school choice legislation, and more
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Funding Education Opportunity Newsletter

Funding Education Opportunity: Open enrollment momentum, school choice legislation, and more

Plus: Florida adopts universal education savings accounts, parents file new lawsuit against Maine's town tuitioning program, and more.

Open enrollment is increasingly being embraced as an important policy that gives parents and students the ability to choose a public school other than their residentially assigned one. EdChoice recently published a new report, Breaking Down Public School District Lines, by Susan Pendergrass, which looked at K-12 open enrollment policies nationwide.

Pendergrass’ paper reported in-depth survey data from eight school administrators in Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana, and Florida about how open enrollment affected their school districts. Notably, these administrators stated that open enrollment drove competition between school districts, incentivizing them to “create new or enhance existing programs in order to increase and retain enrollment.” This competition encourages school districts to market their programs to both families residing inside and outside of their attendance boundaries.

Research from other states supports these findings. For instance, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office’s (LAO) 2016 report on the state’s cross-district open enrollment option, the District of Choice program, showed that school districts that experienced student attrition due to the program sometimes improved their school offerings. In some cases, these efforts resulted in school districts improving enough to retain students.

Similarly, a 2023 Reason Foundation report by Will Flanders showed that open enrollment competition incentivized Wisconsin school districts to improve. “In the first and second year after a loss of enrollment, there is a statistically significant relationship that suggests the larger the loss of students, the greater the increase in the performance of the district,” he wrote. These findings show that open enrollment can be the rising tide that lifts all boats.  

Yet, only a handful of states currently have robust open enrollment policies. A 2022 Reason Foundation report showed that only 11 states have strong open enrollment policies. During the 2023 legislative sessions, however, at least three states—West Virginia, Arkansas, and Idaho—have already signed robust open enrollment proposals into law, increasing the total number of states with good policies to 14. And at least five more legislative proposals related to open enrollment are still under review by state policymakers in North Dakota, Texas, Montana, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

There are three key components to good policy: universal open enrollment policies, robust transparency, and portable funding. These provisions ensure that open enrollment is easily accessible to families, fair, and includes the fiscal incentives that encourage school districts to accept transfer students.  

With 84% of K-12 students enrolled in public schools, millions of students could benefit from this policy. Open enrollment is a win-win for both school districts and families since it encourages school districts to improve and lets students access schools that are the right fit.

From the states

Florida adopts universal education savings accounts while at least two other states advance school choice proposals.

The Texas Senate passed an omnibus education proposal, Senate Bill 8, that would provide $8,000 in education savings accounts to students and would establish a robust K-12 open enrollment policy.

In South Carolina, the House passed H. 3843, which would require all school districts to participate in open enrollment and let students transfer to schools other than their residentially assigned one. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Education. If signed into law, this proposal would significantly improve the Palmetto State’s open enrollment policy. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed H.B. 1 into law in late March, which established universal education savings accounts (ESAs), joining Arizona, Iowa, and West Virginia as states with universal ESAs.  

Both North Dakota legislative chambers passed H.B. 1376, which would establish robust open enrollment throughout the state. 

In Georgia, Senate Bill 147 failed to gain traction. The proposal would have let students transfer schools through open enrollment. A proposal that would have provided eligible students with a $6,500 scholarship that could pay for private school tuition, S.B. 233, passed the Senate but failed to pass the House.

What to watch

Parents open new lawsuit against Maine’s town tuitioning program. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow to Blaine Amendments in Carson v. Makin, stating that Maine’s town tuitioning program could not exclude religious private schools. Despite the court’s ruling, parents are suing the state again, arguing that Maine policymakers introduced a “poison pill” that intentionally excluded certain religious schools. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the state’s Attorney General, Aaron Frey, announced that all private schools participating in the town tuitioning program must comply with the anti-discrimination provisions in the Maine Human Rights Act. 

Kentucky 2024 ballot initiative could put school choice back on the menu. After the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the state’s tax-credit education savings accounts program unconstitutional in a unanimous decision last year, a 2024 ballot initiative could change that. If passed, the initiative would make school choice programs legal in the Bluegrass State, setting the stage for future school choice legislation.

Recommended reading 

Teacher Pension Pac-Man: How Rising Costs Are Eating Away at Education Budgets
Chad Aldeman at The 74 Million

“State budgets have seen a surge in revenue over the last couple years, and it would’ve been a good idea for states to use the opportunity to get their pensions in better financial shape. That largely didn’t happen. But the longer state leaders wait, the more the Pension Pac-Man will keep eating away at their investments in schools.”

The Massive ESSER Experiment: Here’s what we’re learning.
Katherine Silberstien and Marguerite Roza at Education Next

“To say school districts were (and still are) flush with cash is an understatement. District leaders have more money at their disposal than ever before. Normally leaders spend budget seasons trying to pare back planned expenditures to match their revenue reality. But with ESSER, districts had to come up with new ideas for how to spend one-time funds within a limited time period.”

Teachers and the Right
Robert Pondiscio at National Affairs

“Making common cause on public education requires both sides to acknowledge what is plainly observable: that schools are conservative (in the best sense) institutions that serve progressive (in the best sense) ends. Our fiercest arguments occur when either is encroached upon: when schools stray too far into progressive activism, or when education fails to deliver on its promise of being an engine of fairness and social mobility.”