Public schools without boundaries: Ranking every state’s K-12 open enrollment policies
124908610 © David Prahl |

Policy Brief

Public schools without boundaries: Ranking every state’s K-12 open enrollment policies

Only 11 states have mandatory open enrollment laws that allow students to easily transfer to other public schools and 26 states allow public schools to charge tuition to public school transfer students.


In the United States, school assignments are determined by families’ residences, casting unseen dividing lines in communities throughout the country. These government-imposed district boundaries or catchment zones divide communities, sorting children—often by wealth 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.

Open Enrollment Best Practices by State

For example, Kelsey Williams-Bolar—a single mom completing her degree and working as a teacher’s aide—realized that she could not continue to enroll her daughters in their assigned public school in Akron, Ohio. Not only were her daughters being bullied at school, but Akron public schools were low-performing and in poor condition.

She decided to have her children live part-time with her father in the suburbs. While there, she enrolled her children in the Copley-Fairlawn School District, where her father’s home was zoned. However, Williams-Bolar and her father were charged with felonies after a private investigator, hired by the Copley-Fairlawn School District, discovered that Williams- Bolar did not live inside the school district. Williams-Bolar received two concurrent five-year sentences (suspended to 10 days) for using her father’s address to enroll her children in a better school district. Nineteen cases, similar to Williams-Bolar’s, have been reported in eight states since 1996.

Williams-Bolar’s story illustrates how school district boundaries often serve as barriers to better education options for many families. Residential assignment can have long-term ramifications for students, even after they graduate from high school. For instance, Advanced Placement (AP) courses are a valuable tool for high school students, allowing them to receive college credit while still in high school. As of 2021, however, US News reported that nearly a quarter of high schools—mostly in rural areas—did not offer AP courses. This means that students assigned to rural public high schools could end up paying thousands of dollars more for college.

In fact, the Missouri Business Alert reported in 2020 that the difference in AP courses offered at two Missouri high schools, located less than 20 minutes from each other, could cost their respective graduates thousands of dollars. Students assigned to the rural Southern Boone High School could earn a maximum of five college credits, whereas students assigned to its more urban counterpart, Hickman High School, could earn a maximum of 18 college credits. This difference in available AP courses means that graduates from Southern Boone could end up paying nearly $4,000 more in college tuition at the University of Missouri than their peers from Hickman High.

These examples show that residential assignment locks students into their assigned schools even if they aren’t a good fit. Students need flexible education options that may not be available in their assigned district, such as specialized programming, school culture or learning philosophy, or better academic opportunities.

K-12 open enrollment provides a solution for families assigned to public schools that aren’t a good fit for their children. This policy would allow children to enroll in any public school so long as it has open seats. While 43 states have some sort of open enrollment, only 11 states have mandatory open enrollment laws.

This analysis is a roadmap for developing robust open enrollment. It explores the benefits of open enrollment, outlines the core tenets and best practices for open enrollment, examines which states have the best open enrollment policies on the books, and provides an open enrollment snapshot of all 50 states. These state snapshots show policymakers what each state is doing well, where each state falls short, and the necessary steps to establish robust open enrollment.

Reason Foundation’s Five Best Practices for Open Enrollment

  1. Mandatory Cross-District Open Enrollment: School districts are required to have a cross-district enrollment policy and are only permitted to reject transfer students for limited reasons, such as school capacity. Policies, including all applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted online on districts’ websites.
  2. Mandatory Within-District Open Enrollment: School districts are required to have a within-district enrollment policy that allows students to transfer schools within the school district, and are only permitted to reject transfer requests for limited reasons, such as school capacity. Policies, including all applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted online on districts’ websites.
  3. Transparent Reporting by the State Education Agency (SEA): The State Education Agency annually collects and publicly reports key open enrollment data by school district, including transfer students accepted, transfer applications rejected, and the reasons for rejections.
  4. Transparent School Capacity Reporting: Districts are annually required to publicly report seating capacity by school and grade level so families can easily access data on available seats.
  5. Children Have Free Access to All Public Schools: School districts should not charge families transfer tuition.

This report evaluated each state on these best practices to get a snapshot of where each state stands and provides recommendations for each state to improve open enrollment practices.

State-by-state Open Enrollment Analysis
StateTotal Best Practices (out of 5)Cross-District Open EnrollmentWithin-District Open Enrollment Transparent SEA ReportingSchool Capacity ReportingLaw Against Public School Tuition for Students
New Hampshire1XXXX
New Jersey0XXXXX
New Mexico0XXXXX
New York0XXXXX
North Carolina0XXXXX
North Dakota0XXXXX
Rhode Island1XXXX
South Carolina0XXXXX
South Dakota0XXXXX
West Virginia1XXXX
Total States Implementing Best Practices 9/49 7/50 3/50 7/5024/50