Remember whom open enrollment serves

Quick! Name the Ohio school-choice program that has provided students the opportunity to attend a school not operated by their resident school district for the longest period of time. Charter schools? Nope, strike 1. The Cleveland voucher program? Try again, strike 2. Unless you guessed open enrollment, that’s strike 3. Before heading back to the dugout, read on to learn more about this established school-choice program.

Open enrollment, first approved by the legislature in 1989, allows school districts (if they choose) to admit students whose home district is not their own. Perhaps against conventional wisdom, it has become a popular policy for districts. We even analyzed the trend in an April 2013 Gadfly.

According to Ohio Department of Education records, over 80 percent of school districts in the state have opted to participate in some form of open enrollment. There are 432 districts that have opened their doors to students from any other district in the state, and another sixty-two districts have allowed students from adjacent districts to attend their schools.

This year's budget bill (HB 59) created a task force to study open enrollment. The task force is to "review and make recommendations regarding the process by which students may enroll in other school districts under open enrollment and the funding mechanisms associated with open enrollment deductions and credits.” The task force’s findings are to be presented to the Governor and legislature by the end of the year.

In a recent Columbus Dispatch article highlighting the work of the task force, the legislative director of Ohio School Boards Association said that the state's open-enrollment policy "can create tensions among districts who feel others are raiding students." The concern over lost students is mainly economic: When school districts lose kids via open enrollment, they also lose the per-pupil state funding tied to the student. Meanwhile, a task-force member suggested that districts might be giving preference to athletes, top students, and "anyone who may be deemed most desirable" when admitting potential open enrollees.

Raiding students, cherry-picking—that doesn't sound good. It's hard to believe a state law would allow such things. In fact, it doesn't. Open-enrollment provisions can be found in the Ohio Revised Code at 3313.98. There are even some administrative rules at 3301-48-02 of the Ohio Administrative Code. The summary of the law as it relates to open enrollment is as follows

  • Local school boards decide if and to what extent they are going to participate in open enrollment (students from statewide or just adjacent districts).
  • A school board electing to participate must adopt a policy that establishes an application procedure; identifies district capacity by grade level, school building, and education program; and ensures that racial balance is maintained.
  • With only minor exceptions, a district is explicitly prohibited by law from considering academic or extracurricular ability, disability, or English-language proficiency.

In other words, a district chooses whether to participate and enrolls students on a space-available basis. It’s not a state mandate. Moreover, if raiding and cherry-picking were occurring, then it is in direct violation of state law.

While it appears that some folks aren't fond of open enrollment, we recently found that 65 percent of Ohio superintendents thought that open enrollment was “a serious option your district should pursue (or keep).” When asked if open enrollment will bring about “fundamental improvement” to K–12 education, a consequential minority (22 percent) felt strongly that it could. As such, while most superintendents don't feel that open enrollment is a game changer, they generally do feel that their district benefits by it.

Yet even more important than superintendents’ view on open enrollment is how Ohio’s families take advantage of the policy. In the most recent data available (2012–13), 64,107 students are reported to attend a school outside their home district via open enrollment. With a statewide open-enrollment population greater than the enrollment of Columbus City Schools (Ohio’s largest district), a decent-sized chunk of Ohio families are implicitly saying “yes” to this form of school choice.

The state is smart to review programs or policies to see how well they're working. And open enrollment should be evaluated in the context of how well it’s serving students, not by whether the policy impacts districts’ finances, academics, or sports teams. Are students making better academic progress through open enrollment? Do they have better access to advanced or specialty classes? Are they better able to participate in extracurricular activities? Are students able to continue attending a school district despite having moved outside of it?

The task force, made up entirely of superintendents and district treasurers, should proceed carefully and thoughtfully. When dealing with enrollment and funding issues, even small changes could make significant numbers of students ineligible or make the program functionally unsustainable. Districts pushing for changes that would weaken Ohio’s open-enrollment laws would be wise to remember that eliminating the program will not necessarily result in the students returning to their home district. In fact, the next-best option for many families could be a charter school, a private school, or even moving away from the community entirely.

The traditional boundaries of who gets educated where are beginning to blur. Families are becoming more mindful that zip code doesn’t necessarily dictate what schools their children attend. Open enrollment may be one of the state’s most promising efforts to increase educational opportunity. We need to make sure that a review of how open enrollment works administratively doesn’t destroy this opportunity for families and students.

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