States are increasingly enacting open enrollment policies that give students options across school district boundaries. But this is only half the equation. Policymakers must also ensure that education dollars follow the child to the school of their choice, a concept referred to as funding portability. Without sufficient portability, school districts have weak financial incentives to enroll transfer students and may limit opportunities for families. Non-portable dollars also reinforce district boundaries, which lock families into public schools based on where they can afford to live, not what is necessarily best for their children.
The primary culprits inhibiting funding portability are districts that are entirely locally funded due to high property wealth, and both local education funding and state funding streams that aren’t sensitive to changes in enrollment.
New Hampshire provides a valuable case study that illustrates these problems. In total, 39 of the state’s 237 districts are off-formula and don’t generate additional state aid when new students enroll. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire’s non-federal education dollars are generated locally and aren’t portable across school district boundaries. As a result, most districts only receive a fraction of their average per-pupil spending amounts when enrolling additional students, which weakens financial incentives for an open enrollment program.
Ideally, school finance systems should “attach” dollars directly to students so that all state and local education funds flow seamlessly across district boundaries. States vary considerably with how close they are to this vision, and the first step for policymakers is to take stock of funding portability in their state. From there, states can take three different pathways to improve portability: comprehensive school finance reform, targeted solutions, and creating a distinct funding mechanism that supports open enrollment. While all solutions are worth considering, the most direct approach is to follow Wisconsin’s lead by establishing a stand-alone funding allotment for public school open enrollment. Three best practices can help policymakers craft this funding policy.
Uniform: Start with a Single Statewide Base Per-Pupil Amount
Open enrollment funding policy should center around a single per-pupil amount that follows students across school district boundaries, an approach Wisconsin has successfully employed for more than two decades. This provides robust transparency while also guaranteeing that all school districts are operating under the same set of financial incentives. There are numerous ways to set this amount, but policymakers should strive to maximize the share of overall state and local per-pupil funding attached to students.
Responsive: Account for Students’ Needs
Policymakers can attach weights or additional per-pupil amounts to students with disabilities and other categories of need. For example, Wisconsin provides a greater per-pupil amount for students with disabilities, plus reimbursement for costs that exceed this amount up to a specified limit, which is paid for by students’ home districts.
Incentivize: Tap into Local Education Dollars
Ideally, states should ensure that local dollars follow the child across school district boundaries. One way to do this is to deduct a per-pupil amount from home school districts’ state aid for each student who transfers out and allow it to follow the child across district lines. Tapping into local dollars ensures that districts’ incentives are maximized, and this approach negates the need for district-to-district billing of local dollars, which is undesirable because it reinforces the idea that dollars belong to districts, not the students.
Fundamentally, establishing portable education funding moves states closer to a boundaryless public education system—an idea first pioneered by Milton Friedman. In its purest form, this means eliminating residential assignment and funding students directly so that they can choose whatever option best fits their needs.