Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy success is a model for states looking to increase educational opportunities
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Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy success is a model for states looking to increase educational opportunities

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.

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.