COLUMN: Open enrollment can be good for students, bad for districts

Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

The inter-district “open enrollment” public school reform now being considered in the Missouri Senate in SB 603 has much less potential to improve education than do more traditional school choice reforms of charter and magnet schools. Open enrollment allows parents to send their children to schools in districts other than in the one where they reside. It seems unlikely that the benefit of open enrollment on the public schools will be worth all the administrative costs and increased uncertainty involved.

Rather than a general education reform of potential benefit to a large number of students, the open enrollment proposal is likely to be useful for families geographically located in smaller school districts near larger employment markets. SB 603 excludes students from St. Louis and Kansas City and schools that already are at their target class size. Because parents will bear the transportation costs and arrangements, choice options will be limited. My hunch is that medium-sized districts such as Columbia, Jefferson City, and Springfield will be the most likely to attract out-of-district students. Some of these schools are already saving seats for students who are entitled to transfer from “failing schools” as provided for in the No Child Left Behind Act.

Compared with establishing new charter or magnet schools which could provide new schooling options for hundreds of students, the open enrollment proposal will likely appeal to families searching for convenience or special education. It would appeal to families with students who wish to attend a non-district school or in situations where the student has individual needs such as vocational training or special education where a non-district school is viewed as more desirable.

For nearly three decades, a slow moving but still growing school choice reform movement has promoted school choice as a path of school reform for two reasons. First, because the public school system can, and should,  provide more than “one size fits all” options to students and their parents and, secondly, choice sends a message to school administrators about student and parent satisfaction. The Education Commission of the States Web site can provide a good background to those wishing to have more knowledge of the school choice reform movement.

Most school choice alternatives take place within a school district, or across specified school district boundaries to achieve specific school goals. Open enrollment provides an option for students to attend a “receiving district” other than their “resident district.” While the local and state school funds would follow the student to the new district, open enrollment breaks down the identity of, and identification with school districts. Historically, residents pay property taxes and vote in school board elections for the district where they send their children to school.

School districts should have as much within-district parental choice as is practical — and a lot more is practical. Given reasonable planning horizons and the desired ability for school building stability, parents should have maximum choice among schools in different attendance zones in school districts. In school districts with multiple high schools, students and their parents should be encouraged to visit each school while in junior high and decide which school best fits their needs. School "shopping," however, should be discouraged because research by the University of Michigan shows that maintaining school continuity and minimizing transfers between schools contribute to students’ success.

School districts should be rewarded for expanding their charter school and magnet school options. Students and their parents should get involved in their own education, including supporting school activities. School districts with citizen support are likely to perform better in the long run.

While the research on the impact of open enrollment in other states is limited, it seems that few (estimates are about 5 percent according to the Missouri General Assembly's Joint Education Committee) parents take advantage of enrolling their students in non-district schools, but the cumulative impact on the school district is significant. Iowa has experienced this with many smaller school districts where students opt for a nearby larger school district leaving the home district to face elimination.

Not surprisingly, a persistent research finding by the Peabody Journal of Education on school choice reforms is that active, involved parents are the parents who choose to use their choice. Their exit contributes to the cascading down of low-performing schools.

It is troubling to conflate open enrollment with the needs of specific students, such as those in special education with individual education plans as advocated by the Children’s Education Council of Missouri. Special education requires special teachers and additional resources, and individual schools should not face the incentive to curtail their efforts in order to avoid gaining the reputation of being a good school district for special education. State education leaders should invest in expanding special education rather than placing more demands on school districts that provided it well.

In Missouri, a relatively larger share of kindergarten through 12th grade education comes from local sources, mostly the local property tax. Allowing inter-district transfers potentially reduces local control of school districts. In the long run, increased state control of local schools is not likely to maintain school choice for Missouri as a whole.

The Joint Education Committee should be praised for its excellent background work on ascertaining the condition of Missouri schools and the open enrollment  policies in other states. My chief concern is whether the benefit to individual petitioning families outweighs the weakening of traditional school district governance.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record , which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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