Open Enrollment Archives - Reason Foundation Free Minds and Free Markets Fri, 24 Feb 2023 16:48:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Open Enrollment Archives - Reason Foundation 32 32 Funding Education Opportunity: Examining public school enrollment losses and sectors with gains, state education legislation, and more Fri, 24 Feb 2023 16:01:00 +0000 Plus: South Carolina mulls expanding open enrollment, Texas governor calls for school choice reforms, and more.

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Where exactly did the 1.2 million students who left the public school system go during the COVID-19 pandemic? Until now, data on this topic has been hazy at best, but a new Urban Institute essay by Stanford University’s Thomas S. Dee featuring data from the Associated Press and data journalists at Stanford University’s Big Local News provides a snapshot of where approximately 58% of the 1.2 million students who left public schools went. Dee reviews K-12 enrollment changes by sector from 21 states, plus Washington, D.C., between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years.  

In the 21 states examined, public K-12 enrollment declined in every state except for three states and the District of Columbia. The AP and Stanford found that public K-12 enrollment dropped by approximately 711,000 students in those locations. California and New York experienced massive enrollment declines, with nearly 271,000 and 133,000 students leaving public schools. 

By contrast, K-12 enrollments increased in other schooling sectors. Homeschool enrollment grew by about 184,000 during the pandemic, as likely would’ve been expected, with the homeschooling sectors in Florida and New York growing the most. 

Private school enrollments also grew, but more modestly, increasing by nearly 103,000. Florida, again, and Tennessee experienced the most significant growth in their private schools. 

Yet, the private and homeschool sector growth only accounted for about 40% of public school enrollment losses. Dee estimated that population changes, such as students moving to other states and declining birth rates, accounted for more than a quarter of public school enrollment losses. 

At the same time, the report estimated that 240,133 students remain unaccounted for. These unexplained losses featured most prominently in California and New York, where nearly 152,000 and 60,000 students remain missing, respectively. 

Some absences are likely due to unregistered homeschooling and families not enrolling their children in kindergarten, which is optional in nine of the 21 reviewed states. In these cases, Dee estimated that skipping kindergarten accounted for almost 40% of unexplained absences.

Nonetheless, some students have not attended school for multiple years now. Researchers have previously estimated that the lifetime earnings of students who experienced just one year of learning loss could be reduced by more than 9%, so there will be long-term concerns about many of these students and their futures. 

These public school enrollment declines have also hastened financial crises for many school districts that were unprepared for them, especially urban ones. For instance, Minneapolis Public Schools announced an impending fiscal crisis due to declining enrollment last fall.

With fewer students in public schools and an increasing number of families more comfortable with switching schools, public school districts will need to up their game as they navigate a more competitive education marketplace. Research shows that school districts can positively respond to competitive pressures by implementing measures like open enrollment. 

Policymakers should weaken school district monopolies, so students have options outside of their residentially-assigned schools. Oftentimes students drop out of school because of bullying by other students, not feeling like they fit in with classmates, not getting the academic attention they need, or conflicts with teaching staff. Policies, such as education savings accounts and open enrollment, provide students with flexible schooling options to transfer to schools that fit their needs. Education savings accounts, in particular, allow for significant educational customization, paying for tuition, books, physical therapy, transportation, and much more.

From the states

State policymakers continue to advance school choice proposals nationwide.

The Utah State Senate failed to pass a proposal (S.B. 166) to make microschools legal in the state.

In Idaho, the Senate Education Committee passed a proposal (S.B. 1038) that would establish approximately 6,600 education savings accounts. These accounts could be used to pay for various approved education expenses, such as private school tuition or textbooks. There are no income restrictions on the accounts. 

The Arkansas Senate passed Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ LEARNS Act (S.B. 294), which would initially establish education savings accounts for students who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities, or are assigned to failing public schools. However, student eligibility would expand by 2026 to all K-12 students. At the same time, the proposal would also remove any caps on charter schools and student transfers through open enrollment. Currently, the bill has 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 55 cosponsors in the House, providing a supermajority and majority, respectively.

What to watch

South Carolina policymakers are thinking about expanding open enrollment. Proposals in the South Carolina House and Senate would expand public school choice, allowing students to transfer to public schools other than their assigned ones. Currently, some public school districts in the Palmetto State permit students to participate in within-district open enrollment, but the new proposal would require all school districts to participate in cross- and within-district open enrollment. During his testimony, Reason Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Christian Barnard recommended adding transparency provisions to strengthen the proposal.

Texas governor’s State of the State address calls for school choice reforms. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called K-12 education an “emergency item” this legislative session. Noting that Texas successfully implemented education savings accounts (ESAs) for students with special needs during the pandemic, Gov. Abbott stated that Texas now needs to establish universal state-funded ESAs for all Texas families. 

Recommended reading 

A Poor Poverty Measure
Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons at Education Next

“While it has been understood for some time that school lunch enrollment as a poverty indicator is blunt and prone to error, the magnitude of the problem has not yet been fully appreciated. In exploring the rules, features, and processes of the National School Lunch Program, we find that the program’s design, incentives, and lack of income-verification enforcement likely contribute to the oversubscription.”

Stockton, Calif., School Officials Could Face Criminal Charges after Audit Finds ‘Sufficient Evidence’ of Relief Fund Fraud
Linda Jacobson at The74

“The audit by an independent California agency largely focused on a questionable $7.3 million contract paid for with pandemic relief funds. In 2021, former officials appeared to ram through the purchase of 2,200 ultraviolet air filters designed to kill COVID despite multiple warnings that they weren’t following laws and procedures, the report said.”

The Stakes Are Only Getting Higher For Pandemic School Aid Spending
Marguerite Roza at Forbes

“Districts need to plan now so students don’t face chaos at the start of the 2024 school year with classrooms and teachers shuffled, programs abruptly dropped, demoralized staff, and leaders focusing on nothing but budget woes. Past experience tells us that deep cuts are often inequitable and impact our neediest students the hardest.”


Are you a state or local policymaker interested in education reform? Reason Foundation’s Education Policy team can help you make sense of complex school finance data and discuss innovative reform options that expand students’ educational opportunities. Please reach out to me directly at for more information.  

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Arkansas could be the 12th state to enact a robust open enrollment law Thu, 23 Feb 2023 16:00:35 +0000 The LEARNS Act would provide universal school choice for all Arkansas families by 2026.

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For too long, Arkansas students’ public school options have been limited by residential assignment. This outdated and unfair method of school assignment sorts students into schools based on the geographic location of their homes.

This means that access to better public education options can depend on a family’s ability to essentially “buy” seats to better public schools through their mortgage inside the right school district boundaries.

However, a new Arkansas proposal aims to level the playing field, letting families pick their schools— public or private —regardless of their income. Introduced by State Sen. Breanne Davis, the LEARNS Act (Senate Bill 294), has already garnered the support of a supermajority in the Senate. The proposal also has 55 cosponsors in the state House and is strongly supported by Gov. Sarah Huckabee-Sanders.

This proposal would provide universal school choice for all Arkansas families by 2026. Children with disabilities, in foster care, homeless, and those assigned to failing schools would first gain access to an Education Freedom Account (EFA). But all children in the state would be eligible for an account within three years. Families could use their EFA to pay for approved education expenses, such as private school tuition, fees, school uniforms, and supplies. 

In addition to private school choice, the proposal would vastly expand the Arkansas Opportunity Public School Choice Act–the state’s cross-district open enrollment program. Cross-district open enrollment lets students transfer to public schools in school districts outside their assigned one. 

While all public school districts are required to participate in cross-district open enrollment, the policy is crippled because program participation is capped at 3% per school district. This means very few students can transfer through cross-district open enrollment.

Caps on participation help school districts retain their monopoly over the students that are geographically assigned to them. This means that school districts have little incentive to compete for new students or address the concerns of the students and parents assigned to their schools.

The LEARNS Act, however, would eliminate these arbitrary participation requirements. This reform would make Arkansas the 10th state to adopt a robust mandatory cross-district open enrollment law and the 12th state to have a law that requires mandatory open enrollment.

Any student could transfer to a public school outside their assigned school district. Moreover, students could transfer to their new public school for free, as they should be able to, since Arkansas is one of the 24 states that explicitly prohibits public schools from charging tuition to non-resident students.

Cross-district open enrollment is an essential form of school choice since it often lets students access better schooling options. For example, research from Texas and California found that students often transfer to schools with better test scores or more highly ranked than their assigned schools.

Moreover, in 2016 and 2021, California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that students used the state’s cross-district option to transfer to schools that offered Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, specific instructional models, or emphasized career preparation in particular fields.

Similarly, research on Ohio’s open enrollment program showed achievement benefits. It increased on-time graduation rates for transfer students who consistently used open enrollment, particularly those in high-poverty urban areas.

Open enrollment is a popular choice among families. For instance, participation in Wisconsin’s mandatory cross-district open enrollment program increased from 2,500 students during the 1997-98 school year to 70,000 students 23 years later. 

If signed into law, Arkansas’ refurbished open enrollment program would be a noteworthy example of a good education policy that lets students attend schools that are the right fit for them. The LEARNS Act could also weaken public schools’ unfair monopoly over students and encourage competition between schools. Significantly, families’ school choices would no longer depend on where they can afford to live, and instead, parents and students could choose the best schools for them.

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How states can learn from Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment system Mon, 13 Feb 2023 06:01:00 +0000 The term school choice often brings to mind vouchers, education savings accounts, or charter schools. But another form of school choice is critical to giving families options that might better fit their needs: cross-district open enrollment. While many states allow … Continued

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The term school choice often brings to mind vouchers, education savings accounts, or charter schools. But another form of school choice is critical to giving families options that might better fit their needs: cross-district open enrollment.

While many states allow students to transfer to schools across district lines, only nine states implement robust policies that ensure students have access to schools with available seats. A new Reason Foundation policy brief shows promising results and highlights how Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment system can serve as a model for policymakers in other states.

For starters, Wisconsin’s open enrollment program has shown tremendous growth. The number of participants has grown from 2,500 students in the 1998-99 school year to more than 70,000 students in the 2021-22 school year.

The figure below compares enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools and choice programs over time. While public school enrollment in Wisconsin has fallen precipitously, cross-district open enrollment has continued to grow, even outpacing the growth of private school choice in recent years. 

Importantly, the study suggests that cross-district open enrollment helps students access better schools, finding that districts that see net gains through the open enrollment process tend to have significantly higher ratings on the state’s report card than districts that lost students. This finding supports the idea that parents are in the best position to make decisions for their kids and that open enrollment is a viable vehicle for putting them in the driver’s seat.

While multiple factors have contributed to the success of Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment policy, a significant factor is that a substantial portion of students’ per-pupil funding follows them to their new school districts. For regular program students, Wisconsin transfers $8,125 to the receiving school district from the residentially assigned district. This represents about 59% of the average combined state and local spending per student in the state and exceeds the average per-student state contribution by a little more than $1,000.

Wisconsin’s approach creates a win-win by leaving behind some funds to cover fixed costs for the sending district and providing a strong financial incentive to accept transfers for the receiving school district.

For transfer students with special needs, this amount goes up to $12,977. The importance of this increased value should not be lost. Historically, Wisconsin school districts would reject transfers due to claims that they were unable to meet student needs. By offering a higher transfer funding amount, districts are incentivized to take on more challenging students who are often most in need of new opportunities.

A final key component to Wisconsin’s success is that school districts can only reject transfer students’ applications for limited reasons, such as grade level capacity and the applicant’s discipline or truancy records. Otherwise, school districts must accept all transfer applicants so long as open seats are available. In fact, school districts must implement a lottery if the number of transfer applicants exceeds the number of available seats. This limits the arbitrary rejection of students and encourages families who need a change to apply in a relatively transparent process.

Open enrollment is just one tool in the education reformers’ toolbox, but its important potential should not be underestimated. Since open enrollment only involves public schools, there is the potential to bring along new allies who may be reluctant to support other forms of school choice. Wisconsin’s open enrollment program is not perfect, but the state’s ambitious program can serve as a starting point for other states looking to open up public school choice.

For more information, please see the policy brief, “K-12 open enrollment in Wisconsin: Key lessons for other states.

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K-12 open enrollment in Wisconsin: Key lessons for other states Thu, 09 Feb 2023 15:21:19 +0000 Wisconsin's public school open enrollment program serves over 70,000 students and can be a model for other states.

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Executive Summary

In recent years, providing families with more educational options has become an important policy for state legislatures around the nation. But while learning pods, charter schools and education savings accounts dominate the discussion, cross-district open enrollment as a form of school choice shouldn’t be overlooked. Wisconsin provides a best practices model for states looking to improve their student transfer policies.

This policy brief provides evidence that many of the measures incorporated in Wisconsin’s open enrollment system have been effective and have helped to make it the largest single school choice program in the state.

Among the key findings of this report:

#1 Increasing the window for program entry increases participation. Open enrollment jumped nearly 20% in one year when Wisconsin opened an alternative application procedure outside of the normal time frame.

#2 Students move to school districts with better academics. Districts with better outcomes on state tests tend to gain more students in open enrollment, while districts that perform poorly tend to lose more students.

#3 “Donor” districts initially improve. Wisconsin school districts that lost students to open enrollment initially improved on state tests, although these effects dissipated over time.

#4 Increases in the transfer funding amount are correlated with greater district participation. As the amount of funding transferred to the receiving district has increased over time, districts have taken in more students through the program.

Policymakers in other states have much they can learn from Wisconsin’s open enrollment program. Specifically, its statewide funding amount, differentiated funding for students with disabilities, and robust transparency requirements have encouraged school district participation and increased educational opportunities for families, with more than 70,000 students now participating.

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Open enrollment could make Missouri a school choice leader Mon, 06 Feb 2023 06:00:00 +0000 Proposed legislation in Missouri would would establish a an open enrollment program to allow students the opportunity to attend the public school of their choice.

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Missouri’s public K-12 education system needs an update. The quality of a student’s education has been determined by the ZIP code where their family can afford to live for far too long. Because of Missouri’s strict residential assignment system that determines where students can enroll in school, many students don’t have access to nearby public schools that may be a better fit for their learning needs. The K-12 Open Enrollment Act of 2023, introduced earlier this month in the Missouri House of Representatives, aims to change that by providing students with more educational choices.

This bill would establish a public school open enrollment program to provide all students the opportunity to attend the public school of their choice so long as seats are open in their grade level beginning in the 2024-25 school year.

Open enrollment programs can offer an array of benefits to students whose assigned school is not a good fit. Students may choose to switch public schools to access AP classes not offered at their assigned school, escape bullying, have a shortened commute, and much more. Open enrollment also encourages school districts to improve performance to attract and retain students. A recent study showed how California school districts that initially lost students because of open enrollment later improved their educational offerings and improved student retention as a result.

Under the proposed law, Missouri school districts could prioritize admission for certain students, such as siblings of current transfer students, those relocated due to foster care placement or students who are children of active-duty military personnel who have relocated due to orders.

But outside these special circumstances, school districts would not be able to discriminate against transfer applicants for reasons such as race, gender, disabling condition or academic record.

Finally, the bill would also make sure students can enroll in a non-assigned public school free of charge. Currently Missouri is one of 26 states that allow public schools to charge families tuition. These tuition costs can be a serious barrier for students seeking to transfer schools.

Currently, only 11 states, including Kansas and Oklahoma, have robust open enrollment laws. The K-12 Open Enrollment Act would not only allow Missouri to join their ranks, but it would also be the best open enrollment law in the nation.

As we observe the 12th annual National School Choice Week at the end of the month, remember that open enrollment can be the rising tide that lifts all boats for Missouri students.

A version of this column previously appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.

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Public education funding without boundaries: How to get K-12 dollars to follow open enrollment students Tue, 24 Jan 2023 15:00:00 +0000 How to ensure state and local education funds flow seamlessly across district boundaries.

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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.

Download the full policy brief: Public Education Funding Without Boundaries

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Tennessee should ban public school tuition Mon, 16 Jan 2023 05:55:00 +0000 Tennessee public schools are allowed to charge tuition to students living outside a district’s boundaries.

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With the election behind us and the 2023 legislative session just days away, Gov. Bill Lee and state legislators should be looking at ways to build upon last session’s historic education funding reform, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA). The most immediate thing state leaders could do to improve education equity for Tennessee students would be to eliminate public schools’ ability to charge transfer students tuition. 

Although Tennessee offers some options for students to transfer public schools through the state’s open-enrollment program, public schools are allowed to charge tuition to students living outside a district’s boundaries. And schools across the state do so to the tune of thousands of dollars. 

In the 2020-21 school year, for example, Collierville Schools, a district outside Memphis, charged out-of-district families living in Shelby County $400 per student to transfer to its schools, and families who lived outside the county were charged $4,000 per transfer student. To the east, Cleveland City Schools and Greeneville City Schools charged out-of-county families nearly $2,000 to transfer last year.

Williamson County Schools, which includes Franklin, Brentwood and other high-income neighborhoods south of Nashville, charged out-of-county families $3,850 to enroll a transfer student for the 2020-2021 school year. 

Even though a high-quality Williamson County school is accessible from many Nashville (Davidson County) neighborhoods, this steep price tag prevents families from accessing schools in the award-winning district. 

Some of Williamson County’s own teachers are growing frustrated with public school tuition costs. In the spring of 2022, Williamson County Schools educators living in Davidson County implored the school board to reduce the tuition they pay to send their own children to the schools where they work.  Ultimately, the school board decided to reduce the enrollment charges for full-time employees to $2,000 per student with a plan to fully phase out tuition for employees’ children. 

But it shouldn’t just be the children of educators or relatively well-off Nashville families who have access to Williamson County Schools. Students transfer schools for a variety of reasons, including escaping bullying, accessing specialized programs and taking advantage of more accessible transportation routes for their parents. 

What’s more, today’s residential school assignments and school catchment zones often reflect the racially-driven redlining of decades past. Asking middle- and low-income families to pay thousands of dollars to overcome this segregation is wrong. 

School districts may say they need these tuition funds to cover the costs of educating transfer students, but the state’s new funding reform, TISA, will remedy this issue by attaching a fixed dollar amount to each student served by a district, whether they live within its boundaries or not. 

While school districts will receive state funds for a transfer student thanks to TISA, some schools may still argue they need to charge tuition because they can’t levy additional educational funds for the student through local property taxes. But other states, like Wisconsin, have found a way to address this funding gap without placing the burden on families. Wisconsin’s student transfer policy even provides extra funding for special-needs students and reimburses low-income families for some transportation costs. 

Twenty-four states already have laws on the books that prevent public schools from charging families tuition or fees to transfer public schools. During the 2023 session, Tennessee policymakers should focus on making the state’s public schools free and open to all students. 

A version of this column previously appeared in the Tennesseean.

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School districts use ‘capacity’ to keep low-income transfer students out Tue, 27 Dec 2022 09:30:00 +0000 Arbitrary definitions of 'capacity' let schools deny low-income families educational choice.

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When Oklahoma state legislators approved a new K-12 open enrollment law in 2021, school choice advocates celebrated the reform for providing students with more options within the public school system. Implemented at the onset of the 2022-23 school year, Oklahoma’s mandatory cross-district open enrollment policy allows nonresident students to enroll in neighboring school districts regardless of their educational needs, academic performance, or athletic ability. The law also allows transfers at any point during the school year and allows applications to be denied only if a school district lacks open seats in the appropriate grade level.

But despite having a strong open enrollment law, Oklahoma is still dealing with a problem faced by other states with strong student transfer policies: how to ensure school districts aren’t arbitrarily defining capacity to keep neighboring students out. 

Even in school choice-friendly states like Arizona and Florida, problems with protectionist school districts have lingered. In many cases, there seems to be a desire to preserve a public school system where families must purchase expensive real estate to access these public schools—thus, keeping low-income students out. Objecting to open enrollment legislation in Kansas, for example, two school district superintendents submitted written testimony last year that admitted, “Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now.”

These problems raise important questions about how public school districts can be held accountable when they don’t open their doors to transfer students. 

An October report from Oklahoma-based public radio station KOSU indicated that nearly 11,000 students in the state requested a district transfer under the new law during the summer leading into the 2022-23 school year. At the time, roughly 8,400 of these applications were approved, 500 were pending, and 2,000 were denied. Most of the denials were reportedly due to insufficient school district capacity, i.e., a lack of space. 

In the fall of 2022, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs observed that the definition of capacity is set by individual school districts, causing the transfer rules to “appear haphazard or even arbitrary from district to district.” This variation in definitions has disproportionately affected city students, with KOSU noting that although denials were relatively uncommon, the denials were “mostly concentrated in suburban and exurban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.”

Lacking a standardized definition of district capacity isn’t a problem unique to Oklahoma. Arizona’s open enrollment law requires its school districts to report each school’s capacity by grade level and update the figure every 12 weeks — but never elaborates on how districts should determine capacity in the first place.

Florida’s Controlled Open Enrollment law includes more language on how school districts should assess school capacity, saying they can’t exceed a statewide maximum class size limit and must “incorporate the specifications, plans, elements and commitments contained in the school district educational facilities plan and the long-term work programs.” But even this definition of capacity still affords districts plenty of room to deny transfer applicants arbitrarily. 

But there are other routes that could circumvent this problem. The Foundation for Excellence in Education has suggested that school districts reserve space for nonresident students up front, making lack of capacity an unacceptable reason for denial. While intriguing, this proposal could go too far since there are certainly instances where schools truly don’t have space for additional students. Some flexibility is needed.

Another promising solution is to focus on more carrot and less stick. States should consider strengthening incentives for school districts to accept transfer students. While some states are worse than others, all state funding systems have provisions that prevent education dollars from following students who cross district lines. These nonportable dollars often come from local tax levies or state funding streams that aren’t sensitive to changes in enrollment. For districts evaluating transfer applications, it’s easy to see how a lack of funding portability can make them reluctant to receive a nonresident student.

Research from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office shows that funding portability can have a real impact on how willing school districts are to participate in open enrollment. To strengthen incentives, state legislators should reduce school district reliance on these kinds of local revenue streams or find ways to make these funds move with students to the schools of their choice. 

Coming up with a clear and enforceable definition of school capacity is difficult and won’t solve every problem in states’ open enrollment systems. Beyond getting more punitive with school districts that close their doors to outsiders, legislators should ensure that financial incentives make welcoming nonresident transfer students too lucrative for school districts to pass up.

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Arkansas students and families need better public school transfer options Thu, 01 Dec 2022 15:45:00 +0000 Restrictive state laws make it difficult for Arkansas students to transfer to a new public school.

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In Arkansas, the quality of a student’s education is often determined by where their family can afford the price of rent or a mortgage. Plus, restrictive state laws make it difficult for students to transfer to a public school within or outside of their current school district.

To start to fix this and help families find public schools that work for them, Arkansas policymakers should update the state’s open enrollment program.

What is open enrollment?
Public school open enrollment programs allow families to easily transfer to a public school outside of their residentially assigned school districts or catchment zones.

How can open enrollment help students?
Students can want to transfer to public schools for a variety of reasons, including getting access to specialized courses, pursuing extracurricular opportunities, avoiding bullying, solving transportation problems, and more.

Arkansas’ open enrollment program falls short

While Arkansas currently has a cross-district open enrollment program that facilities student transfers across school district lines, the open enrollment program is capped at 3% per school district. This means only a handful of students have access to the public schools that could be fits for their needs each school year.

Furthermore, Arkansas’ within-district open enrollment program only allows students’ attending a public school with an “F” ranking to transfer to a new building within their school district. This hurts families who could be seeking a new public school for reasons other than academics, including seeking to escape bullying, the location of a parent’s job, sports or arts offerings, and more.

Open Enrollment Policy Best PracticeArkansas Policy
Mandatory Cross-District Open EnrollmentX
Mandatory Within-District Open EnrollmentX
Transparent Reporting by the State Education Agency (SEA)X
Transparent School Capacity Reporting X
Children Have Free Access to All Public Schools ✔

The lone bright spot of Arkansas’ open enrollment program is that public school districts are not allowed to charge families tuition to enroll.

More information from the state of Arkansas on its open enrollment program. the Public School Choice Act of 2015, or the Opportunity School Choice Act, can be found here.

Arkansas is not alone in falling short of providing quality student transfer options and needing to improve open enrollment policies. A new Reason Foundation study found that only 11 states have strong and transparent open enrollment options for families. The map below shows how many of Reason’s five best practices for open enrollment each state has on its books.

Public School Open Enrollment Across the U.S.

How to fix it

Arkansas policymakers can make simple but important statute changes to remedy many of the state’s restrictive public school transfer options.

#1 – Make student transfer information available to parents.
Parents should be able to easily access information about open enrollment application deadlines and school capacity by grade level on school district websites.

#2 – Remove the 3% cap on cross-district transfers.
Policymakers should not place an arbitrary limit on the number of students that can transfer to a nearby public school that has open seats.

#3 – Allow universal within-district transfers.
Students should always have the option of switching to a public school within their school district but outside of their residential catchment zone.

#4 – Implement transparency measures.
Public school districts should be required to report the reasons they reject transfer applications, which would help ensure accountability. The state should collect data on how many students are participating in the open enrollment program each year.

To learn more about Arkansas’ current student transfer rules and how to expand families’ public school options, check out this episode of the Believe in Arkansas podcast with host Ryan Morris and me.

Sign up for the monthly newsletter, Funding Education Opportunity, to receive exclusive analysis from Reason Foundation and stay up to date on state and federal education policy news. 

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Funding Education Opportunity: How public school open enrollment impacts upward mobility, education issues on statewide ballots, and more Thu, 29 Sep 2022 14:42:00 +0000 Plus: Arizona school choice news, the latest school staffing, enrollment and spending trends, and more.

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Residential assignment has long constrained student opportunities because it intertwines schooling and housing. All too often, access to a better public education depends on a family’s ability to move to a more expensive neighborhood.

In fact, the median cost of housing in zip codes associated with highly ranked public schools was four times higher than the median cost of homes in zip codes associated with the lowest ranked public schools, according to a 2019 report by the Senate Joint Economic Committee.

When the price of admission to a public school is built into the cost of housing, mortgages function like fees to a private school. Accordingly, residential assignment’s de facto sorting mechanism—property wealth—often isolates students into socioeconomic enclaves. 

New research from Harvard University Economics Professor Raj Chetty explains why this segregation sets low-income students up for failure. His work, Social Capital Volumes I and II, shows that schools are important institutions where students form key social networks and explains how cross-class interaction can form “‘bridging’ social capital,” which is most closely connected to upward mobility. In fact, Chetty finds that students with more cross-class interactions, or economic connectedness, are more likely to rise out of poverty.

Chetty’s research identifies two equally important factors that affect good economic connectedness: exposure to higher-income individuals and friending bias. Exposure to higher-income individuals at school can translate into upward mobility because students have more opportunities to build relationships with people with high social economic status. 

Unfortunately, residential assignment is a major barrier to economic connectedness for many students because it limits their exposure. 

“About half of the social disconnection between low- and high-income Americans is due to differences in exposure. For example, high-income people attend high schools that are disproportionately attended by other high-income people,” Chetty observed.

Weakening the ties between housing and schooling through school choice, including K-12 public school open enrollment, could be a key way to provide students with greater exposure. 

Open enrollment lets students enroll in any public school with open seats regardless of where they live. Strong open enrollment policies operate as a form of public school choice and provide pathways for children to transfer to schools that are a better environmental fit, are safer, or offer AP courses and specialized curricula. For instance, Reason Foundation research showed that families in Texas and Florida use open enrollment to find better educational opportunities for their children.

Most importantly, however, Chetty’s work shows how open enrollment could give more students the opportunity to achieve the American dream

Overcoming residential assignment barriers is key to student-centered education. Government-imposed boundaries wrongly lock students into geographic monopolies, limiting their education options. Not only could these students access education options that are the right fit via robust open enrollment policies, but students could also unlock the social networks that are crucial to upward mobility.

From the States: Education initiatives on statewide ballots this November

In Massachusetts, voters may impose an additional 4% tax on incomes over $1 million. The new revenue would fund K-12, college, and university education, as well as public transportation spending. Massachusetts already spends more than $21,000 per pupil on K-12 education and has increased total education revenue by 26% in the last two decades, despite experiencing a 6% enrollment loss.  

California voters will have the chance to approve or deny an initiative that would earmark at least 1% of all state and local tax revenue from public schools exclusively to arts programs. Proposition 28’s opponents are wary of tying local school district leaders’ hands through “ballot-box” budgeting, especially as public school student enrollment declines. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office proposal estimates Prop. 28 would cost $800,000-to-$1 billion annually. The proposal comes after California allocated an additional $9 billion to its public school system in 2022.

Illinois voters will choose whether or not to add workers’ collective bargaining rights to the state constitution via Proposition 1, which is supported by teachers’ unions, among others. Critics say, if the proposition is passed, public sector unions would be given a newly-created constitutional right that would allow them to negotiate on a potentially limitless list of subjects and potentially block all future laws and reforms that might impact them.

In Idaho, a ballot initiative to increase education spending by more than $300 million through new corporate and individual taxes, even if approved, will now be voided following this month’s emergency legislative session. Gov. Brad Little signed a bill with a sales tax-funded annual spending increase of $330 million for K-12 schools, which will effectively replace the ballot initiative. Pressure to reform Idaho’s funding system overall was a frequent subject of the emergency session’s debate. 

What to watch

School spending vs. student enrollment
Data from Burbio released this month tracks enrollment declines in districts across the country, from Los Angeles to Fairfax, VA. It shows how severe many school districts’ enrollment declines have been since the pandemic started. Yet, while enrollment numbers are declining, education spending continues to increase in most states. This latest data mirrors education spending and enrollment trends seen well before the pandemic. For example, New York increased inflation-adjusted public school spending by over $26 billion between 2002 and 2020 while losing 10% of its student population over that time. 

Arizona school choice opponents fail to prevent education savings accounts expansion
The Arizona citizen’s referendum led by Save Our Schools (SOS), appears to have failed to block the nation’s biggest expansion of education savings accounts (ESAs). Despite its initial claim of gathering 141,714 signatures last Friday, this week, SOS all but conceded that its collected signatures fell well short of the 118,823 needed to overturn the law. This reversal occurred after the Goldwater Institute released projections that SOS was likely to have submitted approximately 88,866 signatures. Arizona’s secretary of state is expected to release the final signature count in mid-October.   

Corey DeAngelis: Why the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of education forever
In a new ReasonTV interview, Corey DeAngelis explains why “backpack funding” is here to stay, why Texas is terrible on school choice, and why even non-parents should care about education reform. 

Recommended Reading 

On a Per-Student Basis, School Staffing Levels Are Hitting All-Time Highs
Chad Aldeman at The74Million
“In the 2020-21 school year, staffing levels hit all-time highs, and the typical public school district employed 135 people for every 1,000 students it served.”

‘Flagrantly Illegal’: Law Firm Files Lawsuit To Stop Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness
Robby Soave at Reason
“President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt violates both federal law and the Constitution, according to a just-filed lawsuit from the Pacific Legal Foundation.”

The End of School Reform?
Chester Finn, Jr. and Frederick Hess in National Affairs
“It goes without saying that opportunities for agreement are difficult to spot right now, and such a coalition would have to pull against the centrifugal forces of polarization — a marked contrast to the previous era in which prominent politicians and advocates found centrism a source of political reward.”

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Better transparency can improve public school open enrollment in most states Tue, 06 Sep 2022 09:10:00 +0000 Transparent open enrollment reporting is key to developing a level playing field for students.

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Extended school closures and COVID-19 pandemic policies have left many families disenchanted with public K-12 education. For a multitude of reasons, including dissatisfaction, public school student enrollment declined by 1.2 million students nationwide between 2020 and 2022. 

K-12 public schools may be able to regain some families’ trust by showing they are open to all families—regardless of where they live through public school open enrollment. Open enrollment policies weaken attendance zone and school district boundaries, letting students enroll in schools other than their residentially-assigned school so long as seats are available in the chosen school. 

While approximately 43 states claim to have some sort of open enrollment program, most of these laws fall short of providing a good open enrollment policy that is accessible to all families. A key component of open enrollment laws that most states lack is mandatory school district participation. School districts should only be able to reject transfer applicants for limited reasons, such as not having the capacity to accommodate them. 

Without mandatory participation rules, protectionist school districts may opt out of open enrollment policies in order to protect their geographic monopolies. For instance, even though most of Ohio’s school districts participate in open enrollment, affluent suburban school districts often refuse to participate. Currently, only 11 states require mandatory participation in open enrollment.

Of these, only three states—Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—have transparent open enrollment reporting by state education agencies (SEAs), which supervise the public elementary and secondary schools in the state. Every year, these three states require their SEAs to publicly report school district open enrollment practices including the number of transfer applicants, the number of transfer applications that were rejected, and the reasons for those rejections. 

Wisconsin’s SEA reports are some of the best in the nation. They provide a wealth of information about open enrollment including key data, such as the number of transfers to and from each school district and the reasons transfer applications were rejected.

Oklahoma’s new open enrollment law also includes requirements for transparent and comprehensive SEA reports. In addition to showing the number of transfer applicants by grade level, the number of transfer applicants rejected, and the reasons why, the state’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability is supposed to conduct randomized audits of 10% of Oklahoma’s public school districts, including reviewing the school district’s records for accepting or rejecting transfer students.  

Transparent SEA reports ensure that school districts are all playing by the same rules and don’t reject transfer applicants for superficial or discriminatory reasons. For example, Columbia University’s Randall Reback’s research showed that even though Minnesota’s open enrollment law only allows school districts to reject transfer applicants when demand exceeds the number of available seats, some school districts rejected transfer applicants for other reasons. Reback wrote:

“Regardless of whether a district has historically high enrollments, it is much more likely to reject transfer applicants if its mean student test scores or household socio-economic characteristics are substantially greater than those of a neighboring district.”

To ensure school districts aren’t bending the rules, states should also bolster their open enrollment laws by requiring SEAs to publicly report this important data. This is an easy way for policymakers to make public education more transparent and accountable to families. 

Some states could improve their policies with little effort. Florida’s SEA, for instance, already collects important open enrollment data such as the number of transfers, the number of rejected transfer applications, and the reasons for the rejections. However, the state does not make this data available to the public. 

Similarly, Texas publicly reports the number of transfers but does not report the number of rejected applications or why applications were rejected. Updating the state’s annual open enrollment reports to include this data could vastly improve transparency.

Six other states—Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, and South Dakota—collect some data about open enrollment transfers. These states’ SEAs could easily expand their reports to include all pertinent data and make them publicly available on a yearly basis.

Transparent SEA reports are a simple but important way to improve open enrollment laws. The valuable data they contain helps ensure that school districts are held accountable for their open enrollment practices, letting students access all available education options.

Without transparent reports, protectionist school districts could discriminate against unwanted transfer applicants with impunity—even in states with good mandatory open enrollment laws. 

Transparent open enrollment reporting is key to developing a level playing field for students. As school districts strategize about how to attract and retain students from a shrinking student population, opening their doors to all students regardless of where they live is the best solution.

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Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy success is a model for states looking to increase educational opportunities Mon, 25 Jul 2022 04:30:00 +0000 Wisconsin's public school open enrollment program has grown from serving less than 3,000 students in the 1998-99 school year to 70,428 students in the 2020-21 school year.

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State policymakers looking to give families more educational opportunities have much to learn from Wisconsin’s K-12 open enrollment success. Wisconsin’s cross-district transfer policy spans more than two decades, growing from serving a mere 2,464 students in the 1998-1999 school year to 70,428 students in the 2020-2021 school year. Stakeholders in other states should consider a few key factors that led to this success when crafting their own open enrollment policies.

For starters, Wisconsin’s policy allows families to access available seats in any school district, setting the foundation for a robust program. In cases where transfer applications exceed supply, school districts use randomized lotteries to select students and place any remaining applicants on waiting lists. In comparison, most states don’t provide the same protections for families, allowing unused seats to remain empty even when potential transfer students are eager to fill them.  

Another key feature in Wisconsin is transparency. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) publishes easily-accessible data showing statewide open enrollment trends and related policies. The state also provides an annual report for the governor and legislature detailing key data for every school district such as the number of transfer applications received, transfers approved, and reasons for rejection. Ultimately, this information—which is often difficult or impossible to obtain in most states—helps policymakers ensure the policy is working as intended.  

For instance, DPI’s 2020-21 report finds that nearly 7,600 students in Milwaukee Public School District applied to other school districts versus only 1,062 students applying for spots in their schools. Last year’s report also highlighted numerous school districts that rejected hundreds of transfer requests including Shorewood, Menomonee Falls, and Greendale. State and local policymakers can use this information to gauge whether districts are serving families effectively and help identify potential barriers to educational opportunities. 

But the most consequential aspect of Wisconsin’s open enrollment success might be its approach to funding. 

The state has established a statewide per-pupil amount—set at $8,224 in 2022-2023—that follows transfer students to their new school districts. 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.

Beginning in 2016-17 Wisconsin also adopted a transfer amount for students with disabilities, which is set at $13,076 for the 2022-2023 school year. After a student’s first year of transferring, receiving districts can submit a financial statement to the state if the actual costs of required services exceed this amount. This means students who are open enrolled for two or more years generate either the statewide transfer amount for students with disabilities or the actual costs to the receiving district up to $30,000.

Establishing a uniform approach to open enrollment funding is important because K-12 school finance systems weren’t designed with student transfers in mind, an issue that afflicts virtually all states. For instance, about 10% of California’s school districts are off-formula, meaning they are entirely dependent on local dollars and don’t generate aid through the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. As a result, enrollment changes for these school districts—positive or negative—don’t affect funding and districts have little incentive to enroll transfer students absent a separate funding policy.  

Wisconsin’s open enrollment funding mechanism is also unique in other ways. The state reimburses low-income families for up to $1,218.54 in mileage expenses for student transportation costs, with payments prorated if claims exceed available appropriations. This helps alleviate transportation barriers that might otherwise limit opportunities for families with fewer resources at their disposal.

Another interesting feature is that students enrolled in public high schools—including open enrollment students—can take up to two courses at any time outside of their home district. While there is not a state funding mechanism for part-time enrollment, receiving school districts bill students’ home districts directly for the cost of a course as defined under administrative rules. Dedicated funding for part-time enrollment means families can access courses and learning opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.

For too long, educational opportunities have been tethered to where students live. Wisconsin’s experience with open enrollment is a model for state policymakers looking to undo this outdated practice by removing barriers to cross-district enrollment. 

A sound open enrollment policy should put families first, shine a light on district practices, and ensure that the right financial incentives are in place to encourage district participation.

A forthcoming study published by Reason Foundation will examine the benefits this open enrollment policy has produced for Wisconsin’s students and school districts alike.  

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Data shows financial incentives matter for K-12 open enrollment policies Wed, 11 May 2022 04:03:00 +0000 If school districts do not receive sufficient funding for transfer students, they’re not going to be as willing to participate in an open enrollment program.

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Policymakers throughout the country are pursuing K-12 open enrollment policies that give families educational opportunities across school district boundaries. There are a number of important policy design considerations lawmakers should take into account when drafting open enrollment legislation, but research from California’s public schools shows it’s critical to get the financial incentives right in order for school districts to accept transfer students.   

California’s District of Choice program started in 1993 and aims to provide families with greater choices within the state’s public education system. School district participation is optional and unlike the state’s primary student transfer law—the Interdistrict Permit System—families can apply directly to Districts of Choice without the consent of their home school districts, removing bureaucratic obstacles that can prevent students from accessing open seats in other schools.

Although California’s policy falls well short of robust open enrollment laws in states such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Arizona, its 45 participating school districts open their doors to nearly 10,000 students each year. In 2021, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) produced a follow-up evaluation to its 2016 report, once again giving high marks to the program and providing valuable insight for state policymakers across the country.

LAO’s findings largely align with other research on open enrollment. Importantly, nearly all participating students transferred to higher-performing districts as measured by test scores and college-going rates, with families also seeking out specialized courses such as foreign languages, arts, and Advanced Placement programs. They also found that low-income students have used the program at disproportionately lower rates, but account for a rising share of participants at 32% up from 27% in the 2014-15 school year. In total, 40% of participants are Latino, 28% Asian, and 26% white, with the remainder belonging to other racial groups.  

Additionally, LAO uncovered evidence indicating positive effects from competition that the program has created. School districts that lost students to the Districts of Choice program 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. They also had greater improvements in math and English language arts proficiency rates over time compared to the statewide average and a comparison group of similar districts, which should help alleviate concerns about students who remain in these school districts.  

But LAO’s findings on financial incentives stood out from the rest of the analysis. In California, education funding is a shared responsibility between state and local coffers, with education dollars following students rather seamlessly across school district boundaries for most districts. But about 10% of school districts—so-called Basic Aid districts—generate local dollars in excess of their revenue entitlement (i.e. they raise more money than what the state’s funding formula determines) and don’t generate additional formula dollars when new students enroll.

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. The LAO’s report noted: 

“Several basic aid districts we interviewed indicated this reduction had caused them to become more cautious and reduce the number of students they were willing to accept through the program.”

For policymakers in other states, LAO’s finding highlights the importance of financial incentives when designing open enrollment policies. Good policy design requires close attention to how dollars flow across school district boundaries when students transfer. If school districts don’t receive sufficient funding when they accept a student from a neighboring district, they’re not going to be as willing to participate in an open enrollment program. They could also attempt to game the system to avoid accepting students if they’re required to participate in open enrollment without financial incentives. 

In California’s case, policymakers need to do more to ensure funding for Basic Aid districts is sensitive to enrollment. For other states, the problem and fixes might look different but the takeaway is the same: open enrollment works best when good policy is coupled with education dollars following the child. 

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