Testimony before Montana’s Senate Education and Resources Committee on House Bill 203.
Chairman Salomon and members of the committee,
Thank you for allowing me to speak briefly about Montana House Bill 203. My name is Jude Schwalbach, and I’m an education policy analyst with Reason Foundation, a national non-profit think tank.
Montana House Bill 203 would make it easier for students to find a public school that best fits their needs. The legislation would let students attend public schools other than their residentially assigned schools. It would only let school districts reject transfer applicants for limited reasons, such as insufficient capacity. H.B. 203 would also make public schools free to all families regardless of where they live—some public school districts charge transfer fees to students. Overall, these proposed changes would significantly improve Montana’s cross-district open enrollment law.
According to national polling released by EdChoice in February, open enrollment enjoys strong bipartisan support. In fact, 72% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans say they favor allowing families to attend schools across school district lines.
However, H.B. 203 could be improved by adopting transparency provisions to ensure that the open enrollment process is fair and accessible. For instance, several states, including Florida, require school districts to post various relevant information on their websites, such as all open enrollment policies and procedures and the number of open seats available to students in each grade level.
Moreover, the Montana Office of Public Instruction should publish an annual report showing the number of transfer students, the number of rejected transfer applicants, and why those applications were denied.
For over two decades, Wisconsin has used public reports like this to refine its open enrollment process. Participation in Wisconsin’s open enrollment program grew from 2,500 students in 1998 to more than 70,000 students in 2021.
Adopting a robust open enrollment policy in Montana would help ensure that public schools are available to all students and empower families to find public schools that are the right fit.