Open enrollment policies allow students to attend the public schools of their choice rather than the school they are residentially assigned to. Strong open enrollment policies empower families to transfer their students to a new school that may be outside of, or within, their assigned school districts.
Cross-district open enrollment policies allow students to transfer from schools in their residentially assigned school district into schools in another public school district.
Within-district open enrollment allows students to transfer from one school in their residentially assigned school district to another school within that school district.
Open enrollment is considered a form of school choice because the policy allows families to find an educational environment that works best for their students, regardless of where they live or their income.
State policymakers could drastically expand the K-12 public education options that are available to families through open enrollment policies, which diminish the role of residentially assigned school districts and attendance zone boundaries by allowing students to transfer to any public school that has available seating.
School district requirements for participating in open enrollment vary from state to state. Strong open enrollment policies require that public school districts:
- Allow within-district and cross-district open enrollment, only rejecting incoming students for limited reasons, such as insufficient capacity.
- Clearly post their open enrollment policies and procedures on their public websites, including all application deadlines.
- Publicly report the number of open seats that every school has so families know which schools have availability.
- Do not charge transfer students tuition or fees.
These policies make it easier for families to use open enrollment and ensure that public schools are open to all students.
In addition to the above requirements, policymakers should also ensure that state education agencies (SEAs) annually report key open enrollment data, including the number of transfer students, the number of transfer students accepted and rejected, and the reasons why any transfer applications were rejected in each school district. This transparency helps hold schools and districts accountable, ensuring that they don’t reject transfer applications for superficial reasons. It also allows state lawmakers to continually measure the success of the open enrollment program.
To access information on school capacity, families should look at school district websites.
States, such as Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma, require each school district to post the number of seats that are open and available to transfer students in each school by grade level. Some states, like Delaware, provide an open enrollment portal that shows which school districts have available seats, are nearing capacity, or are operating at full capacity.
Unfortunately, most states do not currently require school districts to post their available capacity online, making it hard for families to know which school districts have open seats. Transparent open enrollment reporting is crucial to helping families find and understand their education options.
Public schools should only be able to reject open enrollment transfer applicants for limited reasons, such as insufficient capacity.
For instance, Florida school districts, adhering to all federal desegregation requirements, can only refuse to enroll transfer applicants for limited reasons, such as an insufficient number of open seats at a school. This policy ensures that the number of students does not exceed available facilities and staff.
However, other states allow school districts to discriminate against transfer applicants for a variety of reasons, regardless of the number of seats that are available at public schools. For example, New Hampshire lets school districts reject transfer applicants due to their previous academic performance.
At the same time, Arkansas does not allow the number of transfer applicants leaving a school district to exceed more than 3% of the assigned school district’s total enrollment of the previous year. These policies unnecessarily limit the number of transfer students. These discriminatory policies are overly deferential to school districts, letting them cherry-pick students or artificially protect their residentially assigned monopolies.
Successful open enrollment policies ensure that education funding follows the child to their new school district. If school districts do not receive sufficient funding for transfer students, they’re less willing to participate in open enrollment programs.
Wisconsin has one of the most successful open enrollment policies in the nation, in part because of the state’s transfer funding policy. A statewide per-pupil funding amount, which is updated each year by the legislature, follows each transfer student to his or her new school. At the same time, transfer students are still counted in their residentially assigned school districts, allowing them to still collect some education funds for each transfer student. This scenario creates a win-win situation for both the home and receiving school districts.
Research from California’s public schools also shows it’s critical to get the financial incentives right in order for school districts to accept transfer students. Reason Foundation’s Aaron Smith reported:
“Because California’s Basic Aid school districts have virtually no financial incentive to enroll new students from outside of their district boundaries, the state previously provided those that participated in the District of Choice program with 70% of each transfer student’s base amount. However, this inducement was slashed to 25% in the 2017-18 school year with predictable results. By the 2019-20 school year Basic Aid districts reduced transfer enrollments by 24% and several stopped participating in the program altogether.”
Many states do not require school districts to transport students across district boundaries and roughly a quarter of states explicitly prohibit districts from doing so, which can be a significant barrier to accessing open enrollment for many, especially low-income students.
At the very least, states should not prohibit transporting transfer students across school district boundaries. If it so chooses, the receiving school district should be able to create new bus routes to transport transfer students. For instance, Florida school districts can provide transportation options to transfer students.
However, more states should consider innovative proposals, such as those in Colorado and Ohio, which encourage school sectors to work together to provide transportation. Policymakers should also consider Wisconsin’s policy, which reimburses low-income families using the state’s cross-district open enrollment option up to $1,218 annually for mileage expenses for school transportation.
A number of states allow public schools to charge transfer students tuition. While school districts may argue these funds are necessary to cover the costs of incoming students, charging tuition often creates a mammoth barrier for transfer students, especially those from low-income families.
For instance, Texas’ Lovejoy Independent School District can charge families of transfer students up to $14,000 in tuition. Instead of letting school districts charge tuition, states should allow education funds to follow students when they transfer, as Wisconsin does. Aligning financial incentives for both the assigned and receiving school districts is a key to developing a robust open enrollment program.
Questions about student eligibility to participate in sports are dealt with on a state-by-state basis but some states with open enrollment laws, like Arizona and Oklahoma, allow the state’s third-party athletic association to make decisions on student eligibility.
As such, policymakers do not need to change eligibility requirements when adopting open enrollment reforms.
However, if state policymakers desire, they can look to Florida’s policy on athletic eligibility for transfer students. In 2016, Florida passed a controlled open enrollment law that allows students to transfer to any school in the state with few exceptions and also mandates immediate eligibility for student-athletes. This means, unlike in Arizona or Oklahoma, families in Florida don’t have to make difficult tradeoffs between academics and athletics and can instead make student transfer decisions based solely on what’s best for their circumstances, which is impossible for distant bureaucrats to assess.
On Florida’s approach, my colleague Aaron Smith wrote:
“A common pushback against Florida’s approach is the claim that participating in athletics is a privilege for students and shouldn’t be prioritized over academics. It’s easy for some to sympathize with this critique, but then why aren’t similar restrictions applied to other privileges such as debate club, school bands, or performing arts?
Extracurricular activities—sports or otherwise—help develop positive skills and traits that aren’t readily taught in classrooms, and forcing families to make arbitrary choices seems to be more about adult agendas than what’s best for kids. Granting student-athletes immediate eligibility can even help with socialization and adjusting to their new environment.”
Which states have open enrollment?
Most states have some form of open enrollment or student transfer policy, but only a handful make transfer opportunities accessible to all families
Florida: An Open Enrollment Policy Standard Bearer
Florida’s open enrollment law could serve as an ideal open enrollment model for other states. All school districts in the Sunshine State are required to participate in both cross-district and within-district open enrollment. The state’s public schools must regularly report the number of available seats by grade level and cannot charge transfer students’ families tuition or fees. While not required to do so, school districts can provide transfer students with transportation options.
During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 273,500 Florida students used open enrollment. More than two-thirds of the students using cross-district open enrollment transferred to schools “with graduation rates above the state mean and more than 90% of inter-district transfer students attend A- or B-rated school districts,” Reason Foundation’s Vittorio Nastasi reported.
Wisconsin’s Model Funding Solution to Open Enrollment
Wisconsin’s open enrollment law requires all school districts to participate in mandatory cross-district open enrollment so long as they have open seats. Beginning with a mere 2,464 students in the 1998-99 school year, Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment program grew to 70,428 students in the 2020-21 academic year.
Like Florida, Wisconsin school districts must post about their cross-district open enrollment option on their websites. In the case of oversubscription, students are selected through a randomized lottery with a waiting list for students who aren’t selected. The Badger State also has a voluntary within-district open enrollment option.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides detailed reports about available capacity in each school district including the number of transfer students and the reason transfer applications were rejected. School districts cannot charge tuition to transfer students.
The crown jewel of Wisconsin’s open enrollment program is its cutting-edge student funding mechanism allowing education dollars to follow each transfer student regardless of where they go to school.
Research shows open enrollment is often used by families to access better school districts and can improve outcomes at sending school districts.
For example, students using Texas’ cross-district open enrollment during the 2018-19 school year were more likely to transfer to school districts ranked as “A” under the state’s district report card accountability system and less likely to transfer to school districts with lower rankings, such as “C,” “D” or “F.”
California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office’s 2016 and 2021 reports showed that most students participating in the state’s District of Choice program transferred to school districts with higher test scores. According to Reason’s Vittorio Nastasi, more than 90% of students using Florida’s robust cross-district open enrollment option transferred to schools rated as “A” or “B” and “over two-thirds of transfer students crossing school district boundaries enrolled in districts with graduation rates above the state mean.”
These findings show that students typically use open enrollment to access better schools outside their residentially assigned option.
A 2017 report on Ohio’s open enrollment program found achievement benefits and increased on-time graduation rates for transfer students who consistently used open enrollment, especially for black students and those in high-poverty urban areas.
Better academic opportunities are not the only advantage of open enrollment policies. The 2016 report from California’s LAO indicated that school districts participating in the District of Choice program attracted students who were bullied at or did not fit in at their assigned school or who wanted a shorter school commute.
At the same time, transfer students are not the only ones who benefit from open enrollment policies. A robust education marketplace can make school districts responsive to students and families. For example, both the 2016 and 2021 California LAO reports found that many students transferred schools because their assigned school lacked educational opportunities, such as advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses, school instructional models, or courses that emphasized career preparation for students interested in particular fields.
In response, some school districts “took steps to mitigate enrollment losses including gathering feedback from families and communities, evaluating programmatic offerings, and implementing reforms that led to fewer students transferring out,” Reason’s Aaron Smith pointed out. Similarly, a 2014 report found that Colorado’s transfer students tended to come from school districts with fewer AP offerings and higher dropout rates.