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 Practice||Arkansas Policy|
|Mandatory Cross-District Open Enrollment||X|
|Mandatory Within-District Open Enrollment||X|
|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.