Testimony: Missouri Can Expand Opportunities for Families to Pursue Educational Options Across District Boundaries
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Testimony

Testimony: Missouri Can Expand Opportunities for Families to Pursue Educational Options Across District Boundaries

A growing body of evidence shows that open enrollment provides substantial benefits to both kids and school districts.

Testimony Before the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on House Bill 2310

Chairman Basye and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on House Bill 2310.

My name is Aaron Garth Smith and I am the Director of Education Reform at Reason Foundation, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit, think tank. Our Center for Student-based Budgeting works with stakeholders across the country, including state policymakers and school district officials, to analyze and improve school finance systems so that education funding is more equitable, transparent, portable, and flexible.

HB 2310 would help expand opportunities for families to pursue educational options across district boundaries, a policy known as open enrollment or inter-district choice. To be sure, this can pose implementation challenges such as funding portability, transportation, and ensuring equitable access for all students. However, a growing body of evidence shows that open enrollment provides substantial benefits to both kids and school districts and that these barriers can be overcome.

A study published by the Fordham Institute found achievement benefits for students who consistently participated in open enrollment, but the research on the effects on student outcomes is limited. However, it is clear that participating students tend to transfer to higher-performing districts. For example, a study of Minnesota’s open enrollment policy found that student achievement levels are stronger predictors of transfer demand than both socio-economic characteristics and district expenditures while a separate study of both Minnesota and Colorado found academic quality is the largest determinant of open enrollment flows.

Additionally, families have diverse reasons for seeking opportunities across district boundaries. An analysis of California’s District of Choice program by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found that these reasons include accessing programs that are not available in their home districts (e.g. college preparatory coursework, performing arts, engineering, etc.), accessing specialized instructional philosophies (e.g. project-based learning) and escaping bullying. Importantly, districts with exiting students have taken steps to address parental concerns such as holding community outreach meetings and analyzing data to better understand why students were leaving. Quite often, districts innovate in response to enrollment losses and find new ways to better serve families.

I encourage you to consider the policies of states such as Florida, Colorado, and Arizona that have given families more options through open enrollment. In Colorado, for instance, about 50,000 students—or 6% of the state’s student population—attend schools outside of their home districts. Importantly, this practice isn’t limited to urban or suburban families. In fact, the districts serving the highest percentages of transfer students tend to be small and rural with some families travelling long distances each day for these opportunities. The fact that open enrollment has grown in recent years is a testament to its popularity.

In conclusion, HB 2310 is an important step toward giving Missouri’s students opportunities outside of their residentially assigned school districts. The most critical question is not whether you should take this step, but how you can do so in a manner that supports all families.

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment on this important work. Please do not hesitate to reach out if we can provide additional information or insights on this subject.

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.