Open enrollment sweeps across Ohio

The West Carrollton school district, just southwest of Dayton, is the latest Ohio school district to pass an open enrollment policy allowing students from any district in the state to enroll in one of their schools. West Carrollton Superintendent Rusty Clifford told the Dayton Daily News that, “Our purpose is to be the school district of choice in Ohio. We want to give any student in the state the opportunity to experience the same great education that students currently living in the West Carrollton district are experiencing.” West Carrollton serves about 3,800 students, 58 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, and the district received an Effective (B) rating from the Ohio Department of Education in 2011-12.

Superintendent Clifford, Ohio’s 2013 superintendent of the year, acknowledged the decision to become an open enrollment district was driven by economics. “Our enrollment numbers right now are flat to slightly declining,” Clifford told the Dayton Daily News. District enrollment has declined about 13 percent since 1999 and Clifford argues, “In order to keep all of the great staff we have right now, we need to grow our student base. As we keep students, we can keep staff.” Each student that enrolls in West Carrollton from another district brings about $5,700 with him or her.

The Ohio Legislature approved an open enrollment policy in 1989, and under state law school boards are able to decide among three options:

  • Accept only students who are residents of the district;
  • Extend enrollment eligibility to students living in adjacent districts;
  • Open enrollment eligibility to any student in Ohio.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, about 430 of the state’s 611 school districts now have open enrollment policies in place. Based on data from Fordham’s recent statewide study on student mobility, as of 2011 (last year for data) more than 61,000 students attended a public school outside of their home district. There are 29 districts in the state with 20 percent or more of their students as open enrollees, and 12 districts have more than 30 percent of their students enrolled in another school district. Since the fiscal crisis of 2008 more and more Ohio districts have embraced open enrollment policies.

430 of Ohio's 611 school districts now have open enrollment policies

Cincinnati Public Schools approved an open enrollment policy in January of this year and Superintendent Mary Ronan explained the logic in her comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time thusly, “We push out of the district over 100 students per year because they’ve moved and can’t afford the tuition…It really is heartbreaking. We’ve seen the letters and take the phone calls.” Superintendents across the state largely support open-enrollment policies. A new survey on the attitudes of Ohio’s superintendents that the FDR Group has conducted for Fordham (to be released in May), found that 65 percent of the state’s superintendents think open enrollment is “a policy worth keeping or pursuing.”

For some school districts, open enrollment is a strategy key to their survival. Perry school district in Allen County, for example, garners 44.8 percent of its 882 students through open-enrollment. “At one time we had 900 regular students,” Perry Superintendent Omer Schroeder told the Lima News in November, “Our district has become smaller and smaller and it is no secret that open enrollment is our lifeblood.”

"Open enrollment is our lifeblood," said one district superintendent

But, obviously, not all school districts benefit from open-enrollment. Some see net gains of students, while others lose out. It is also worth pointing out that some districts have significant numbers of students going both ways – into the district through open enrollment and out. Akron, for example, saw 1,698 students from its jurisdiction attend other district schools through open enrollment (5.9 percent of its total enrollment), but also saw 544 students come to its schools from other districts (2.3 percent of its total enrollment). New Boston in Scioto County is an even more dramatic example in terms of percentage of kids coming and going through open enrollment. The district saw 19.9 percent of its students (those living within its boundaries) attend other district schools through open enrollment, but it gained 43.5 percent of its total enrollment from other districts.

Despite the growth in open enrollment, and the apparent support for it among superintendents, there has been talk in recent years of curtailing or even doing away with open-enrollment policies. Last year State Senator Tom Sawyer, a Democrat from Akron, proposed Senate Bill 220. The bill called for the Ohio Department of Education to study the impact of open enrollment, and require lawmakers to either renew the policy or repeal it in 2015. Senator Sawyer’s bill hasn’t moved out of the Senate.

But more and more students are moving across district lines through their district open enrollment policies. This doesn’t look to be a trend that will end anytime soon if parents and students have a choice in the matter.

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