Districts are biting into the competition apple

“Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind, none is greater than that of competition,” said Senator Henry Clay in 1832. We’ve all bitten from the competition apple, and it tastes pretty good. Today, we have scores of TV channels, hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, and grocery stores from which to choose: an incredible amount of choice, all driven by free-markets and competition.

Competition is one reason why I love Ohio’s inter-district open enrollment policy. It allows school districts to compete for students, largely irrespective of where the student lives. Under state law, a district may adopt a local board policy, whereby it can admit students from either anywhere in Ohio or only from an adjacent district. Over 400 districts in the state have adopted an open enrollment policy.

As we reported in October, the state’s open enrollment policy has been put under the microscope in a legally mandated task-force review. The task force’s documents are now posted online and the report with policy recommendations is available also. The following are what I take away from the task force’s documents and report.

  • The growth of open enrollment is remarkable.  In 2012-13, 71,827 students attended a district via open enrollment. This more than doubles the number of open-enrolled students compared to 2002-03 when just 33,395 kids participated.
  • Many suburban districts refuse to participate in open enrollment. The map of districts that have adopted an open enrollment policy is eye-opening. It shows that districts surrounding the state’s largest urban areas (Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton) simply refuse to accept students from outside their own district. (They can still lose resident students through open enrollment, however.) As we have stated before, this is reprehensible as it further constrains choice for kids who need access to good schools. However, in suburban Columbus, middle-class Reynoldsburg City Schools—the district of task force chair Steve Dackin—recently adopted an open enrollment policy. Kudos to Reynoldsburg and other suburban districts that are becoming more welcoming of students outside their own boundaries.
  • Open enrollment funds mostly “follow the child.” When a child open enrolls, the state’s per-pupil funding generally follows her. Under current law, the core per-pupil funding of $5,745 is deducted from her district of residence—and rightly so, since the child is no longer being educated there—and added to the district where the child is educated. Additional funding for special-education students also follows, but the timing of payment is delayed until the end of the fiscal year. By allowing funds to follow the child, the competitive nature of open enrollment is introduced, as districts gain an economic self-interest in admitting an additional student. A well-designed policy, though the districts that are net losers are apt to gripe. Sour grapes, I say.
  • Policymakers should reject the recommendation to establish a pool of state funds to reimburse districts that are net “losers” in open enrollment. Should the state prop up districts that are on the losing end of the open enrollment? In my view, the answer is no. Tax dollars should go to the district that educates a child, which is not the district of residence under open enrollment. I understand the urge to help districts that lose students, but why create a quasi-welfare program for districts that are clearly not doing a good enough job competing to educate children? It would be more productive for those districts that are losing students to ask their own families why they select another district, and then make the appropriate changes.

Jeffrey Layton, superintendent of Northwestern Local (Wayne County)—a net gainer in open enrollment—writes to the task force: “Competition drives innovation.” Layton adds that he would “like to see incoming open enrollment become more competitive, which will only further promote students achievement through parent and student motivation.”

He is right. Competition between school districts can drive productivity, innovation, and effectiveness—the very qualities we want to see on the “supply” side of schooling. Not only that, open enrollment also bolsters the “demand” side of the education equation by encouraging and emboldening parental involvement in their kids’ school. We all know parents matter in a kid’s educational outcomes: So, why not motivate parents by giving them a conscious choice in schools?

The open enrollment task force shows that many Ohio school districts are competing hard to educate kids. That is a good thing—and let’s not for a second disregard what these districts are doing. Meanwhile, a growing number of parents are exercising school choice through the state’s open enrollment program. Moving forward, more districts should open their doors, especially those in high-wealth suburban areas. As open enrollment “sweeps across Ohio,” let’s strengthen not weaken Ohio’s open enrollment policy.

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