How Colorado can improve its open enrollment policies for students, parents and school districts
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How Colorado can improve its open enrollment policies for students, parents and school districts

Open enrollment lets students transfer to schools other than their residentially assigned one so long as seats are available.

Testimony on K-12 open enrollment to the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Thank you, Madame Chair and members of the committee, for letting me speak about K-12 open enrollment. My name is Jude Schwalbach. I am an education policy analyst with Reason Foundation, a national non-profit think tank. Last year, I published a research paper about model open enrollment policies examining the existing systems in all 50 states and comparing them with best practices.

Public school assignments are determined by families’ residences, often dividing communities throughout the country. These government-imposed school district boundaries or catchment zones sort children—often by wealth, race, or ethnicity—into schools based on where they live. Many are unaware of these divisions until they realize that access to certain public schools often comes down to where you live.

This practice of residentially-based school assignment fundamentally ties schooling to housing and property wealth. In fact, the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee reported in 2019 that homes in zip codes associated with highly ranked public schools were quadruple the price of homes in zip codes associated with poorly ranked schools. Luke Ragland, formerly of Ready Colorado, a conservative education group, reported in 2020 that Colorado “families living in high-income zip codes are seven times as likely to have excellent access to a top high school than families living in low-income zip codes.” All too often, school boundaries can reflect economic, social, or racial divisions in communities. As a result, children from low-income households or those who suffer from historic educational redlining are less likely to have access to high-quality education options than their more affluent peers. Residential assignment often siloes students into socioeconomic enclaves, reinforcing the divisions that make it harder for students to gain the bridging social capital which Harvard economist Raj Chetty describes as essential to upward mobility.

K-12 open enrollment, however, can weaken school district or catchment boundaries, letting students transfer to schools that are the right fit. Open enrollment lets students transfer to schools other than their residentially assigned one so long as seats are available.

Cross-district open enrollment lets students transfer to schools outside their assigned school districts, while within-district open enrollment lets students transfer to schools outside their catchment areas but inside their school districts. 

Figure 3 on page 11 of my paper, Public Schools Without Boundaries, illustrates the difference between cross- and within-district open enrollment.

Benefits of open enrollment

Research on open enrollment shows that it fosters excellence, positively impacting students and schools. A major driver of student participation in open enrollment is access to better schools. For example, students using Texas’ transfer policy 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.” Similarly, in 2016 and 2021, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) found that nearly all students participating in the state’s District of Choice program transferred to districts with higher test scores. Likewise, more than 90% of students using Florida’s robust cross-district open enrollment option transferred to schools rated as “A” or “B.” At the same time, 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 those in high-poverty urban areas. Reason Foundation research showed that Wisconsin students using open enrollment transferred to school districts with better academics. In Michigan, minority students or those from low-income households who also performed poorly on state exams were most likely to participate in open enrollment. A 2011 report showed that academics was an important factor in Colorado and Minnesota families’ decisions to participate in open enrollment.

These findings indicate that families use open enrollment to access better public education options in areas where they can’t necessarily afford to live. 

Better learning environments, however, aren’t the only reason families use open enrollment; commute times, safety, bullying, and particular school environments all impact students’ decisions to transfer. For instance, California’s 2016 LAO report showed that students who were bullied, did not fit in at their assigned school, or who wanted a shorter school commute used the District of Choice program. Both the 2016 and 2021 California LAO reports also found that many students used open enrollment to access educational opportunities such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, a particular school instructional model, or courses that emphasized career preparation for students interested in particular fields. Other school choice research also indicates that families consider a host of factors in school selection. For instance, a 2018 EdChoice survey of Florida families participating in the state’s tax-credit scholarship program reported that morals and character instruction, and safety were more important than academics in school selection. 

Open enrollment, however, doesn’t just foster excellence in students. It can encourage school districts to improve. Research from California and Wisconsin showed that school districts losing students through open enrollment were motivated to get better. In some cases, California districts that made improvements saw fewer students transferring out of their assigned districts. Similarly, Wisconsin school districts that lost students through open enrollment initially improved on state tests, showing that school districts can change when families vote with their feet. This illustrates that school districts can be responsive to market forces and can improve when incentivized. 

Model open enrollment policy

While approximately 43 states permit some sort of student transfers, most of these transfer policies are null or ineffective for most families since they are overly deferential to school districts. Given the opportunity, many school districts will game the system to exclude students who don’t reside within their boundaries. For example, in 2022, two Kansas superintendents submitted testimony to the state legislature in opposition to a robust open enrollment policy that was later signed into law. They wrote, “While we can certainly empathize with parents in lower-performing districts, both Blue Valley and Olathe are among the highest-performing districts in Kansas—indeed competing nationally—and, as such, would find our districts overwhelmed with requests from non-residents… Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now.” This illustrates how school districts will act in their own interests instead of what’s best for students. 

Accordingly, it’s important to get open enrollment laws right and ensure that students aren’t excluded for superficial or discriminatory reasons. Weak open enrollment laws can be voluntary, allowing districts to opt out of participation. In other cases, public school districts can charge non-resident students the full cost of tuition or exorbitant fees, creating significant barriers for public school students, especially those whose families cannot afford tuition or transportation costs. Consequently, robust open enrollment laws must include provisions that ensure a transparent and fair process for students.

Reason Foundation reviewed all existing open enrollment systems and established a five-point best practices system for establishing good open enrollment policy. The report also ranked open enrollment policies in all 50 states. The five key open-enrollment elements are:

  1. Mandatory cross-district open enrollment: All school districts with open seats must participate in cross-district open enrollment so children have access to any public school with open seats. At the same time, districts need to post their open enrollment policies and procedures on their websites for parents to see. Participation should be mandatory to ensure that districts don’t opt out, even when they have open seats.  For example, many suburban school districts surrounding Ohio’s eight major cities opt out of the state’s voluntary open enrollment program. As a result, many inner-city and nearby rural children cannot transfer to nearby suburban schools that are a better fit. Mandatory cross-district open enrollment policies, however, ensure that districts fill every available seat. 
  2. Mandatory within-district open enrollment: All school districts with open seats must also participate in mandatory within-district open enrollment, allowing students living inside the district boundaries to transfer to any school with excess seats and posting their open enrollment policies and procedures on their websites. Within-district open enrollment lets students enroll in schools near their homes but outside their assigned catchment areas. In some cases, students live closer to or the same distance from a school outside their catchment zone as their assigned school. As with the previous metric, mandatory participation requirements ensure that students aren’t excluded from nearby public schools with available capacity that are a better fit for them. 
  3. Transparent Reporting by the state’s education agency: Transparent public reporting of important open enrollment data is essential to robust open enrollment so policymakers can refine their policies over time and ensure that the open enrollment process is fair for all students. While some state education agencies (SEAs) collect some or all open enrollment data, it is often difficult to access or only partially available to parents and legislators. 
  4. Transparent and public posting of open seats in schools:  School districts should regularly update their available capacity by grade level on district websites so parents can identify opportunities. These transparency requirements ensure that families know which seats are open.
  5. Free access to all public schools: In some states, school districts can charge transfer students the cost of public school tuition. This can be an insurmountable barrier for families that cannot afford to pay it. For instance, for the 2022-23 school year, non-resident students could be charged more than $20,200 for grades 7-12 annually at Pelham Public Schools in New York. Unfortunately, these charges aren’t unusual. Some school districts in Texas and Virginia annually charge transfer students public school tuition costing $9,000 and more than $10,000, respectively. This creates perverse incentives for schools to “sell” their seats. No district should be able to charge tuition to families for public K-12 education. The better policy is to make funding follow the child seamlessly across district boundaries.

These were the metrics we used to compare states’ policies to our best open enrollment practices. If a state’s policy fell short in any way, it received an “X”. Table 1 on pages 16-17 in my paper, Public School Without Boundaries, summarizes these metrics.

When this paper was published in November 2022, 11 states had an open enrollment policy that met our standards. However, at least three states signed robust open enrollment proposals into law during their 2023 legislative sessions, increasing the total number of states with robust open enrollment to 14. Specifically: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin now have good open enrollment policies. 

Only three states, however, have a transparent state education agency reporting policy: Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. 

Eight states have a transparent school district reporting policy: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah.

And, 24 states, including Colorado, prohibit public school districts from charging transfer students tuition. 

On the whole, Colorado scored a 3/5 on Reason Foundation’s open enrollment best practices score sheet. The state has robust mandatory cross- and within-district open enrollment policies, making it one of five states that meets Reason’s standards for both. Colorado also does not let public schools charge transfer students tuition. According to Luke Ragland and Craig Hulse’s 2018 report, about 44,000 Colorado students used cross-district open enrollment.

However, the Colorado Department of Education does not publish important open enrollment data, such as the number of transfer students, the number of rejected applicants, and why applications were rejected. This data is key to improving open enrollment systems for parents, schools and the state. In fact, Wisconsin has used this sort of data to modernize and refine its open enrollment policy for more than two decades. 

Transparent state education agency reports, like Wisconsin’s, help hold school districts accountable to ensure that they don’t reject transfer applications for unfair or discriminatory reasons. Currently, most SEA’s oversight of open enrollment transfers is often minimal and usually doesn’t exceed the minimum standards established by federal civil rights laws. States should emulate Wisconsin, which publishes the best data on open enrollment in the nation. The Badger State’s annual report includes key open enrollment data, such as the number of transfer applications that were accepted or rejected and the reasons why applications were rejected. Notably, Wisconsin also reports the number of transfer applicants seeking admission to or withdrawal from each school district in the school year, showing the potential net change; and the total number of students that either transferred into or out of each district, showing the actual net change.

This data helps ensure that districts only reject transfer applicants for good reasons, such as not having the capacity. It also shows the demand for student transfers, showing real and potential changes. This can help policymakers and school administrators identify school districts that need to improve. Without transparency, districts could reject all transfer applicants or discriminate against certain applicants. Accountability through transparent reports published annually by the SEA helps ensure that school districts maintain a fair open enrollment process. 

At the same time, Colorado does not require school districts to post their available capacity by grade level. The lack of transparency regarding open seats creates burdens on families, requiring them to reach out to school districts to try to find relevant information and available schools.

Improving definitions of “capacity” is another key way Colorado can improve its open enrollment policy. State policymakers should ensure that school districts don’t arbitrarily define capacity to keep transfer students out. Even states with robust open enrollment laws, such as Florida, Oklahoma, and Colorado, struggle to navigate these policy waters. While robust transparency provisions, like Wisconsin’s, can reveal patterns of unfair student selection, state policymakers should incentivize districts to accept transfer students. In Oklahoma, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability randomly audits 10% of school districts every quarter to ensure that no districts are rejecting transfer applicants for superficial reasons. If a school district fails its audit, the agency will set new capacity parameters for the school district.  

This year, Montana policymakers introduced a proposal that defined capacity in light of each school building’s fire or safety codes. In 2022, Florida policymakers proposed various reporting requirements, such as making school districts update their capacity every 12 weeks, requiring school districts to maintain waiting lists, and accept transfer students throughout the year as seats become available. 

Another reason many school districts are hesitant to accept transfer students is that they lack financial incentives to do so. In most states, local education dollars don’t follow transfer students to their new school districts. Additionally, some school districts are “off formula,” meaning they are funded entirely with local dollars and don’t generate additional revenue when new students enroll. Consequently, many school districts have weak financial incentives to participate in open enrollment since transfer students aren’t fully funded. In fact, research by California’s LAO report showed that funding portability affects school districts’ willingness to participate in open enrollment. Accordingly, making education dollars portable so that they follow students to their new public school is essential to incentivizing participation and building a robust open enrollment program.

This funding portability problem varies by state, but Wisconsin’s approach to transfer funding likely offers the best solution. In Wisconsin, an established statewide per-pupil amount follows transfer students to their new school districts, approximately $8,200 in 2022-2023. As my colleague Aaron Smith wrote, “This funding amount is updated annually by the state legislature. These students are still counted in their home school districts’ enrollment for funding purposes, with transfer amounts for exiting students deducted from their state aid. This ensures revenue neutrality for the state and allows students’ home districts to retain a portion of funding for students that leave their schools.”

Wisconsin also provides a transfer amount for students with disabilities, approximately $13,000 for the 2022-23 school year. If the actual costs of the student’s services exceed this amount, the school district can submit a financial statement for increased costs to the state for the second year of education for up to $30,000. 

Transparency is the primary way in which Colorado needs to improve its open enrollment policy. Because we have not studied Colorado’s funding system closely, and funding portability varies greatly between states, we encourage policymakers to investigate funding portability in their own state to see what changes are most necessary. This generally involves evaluating to what degree each of the portability problems—off-formula school districts, local education funding, and non-enrollment funding streams—is prevalent. Additionally, Colorado policymakers should consider minor tweaks.

With approximately 84% of students enrolled in traditional public schools nationwide, K-12 open enrollment is likely the most common method of school choice for families. Consequently, it is important for Colorado to get this policy right so that public schools are available to all students, and families are empowered to find and enroll in the public schools that are the right fit.