Open enrollment policies allow students to attend the public school of their choice, regardless of attendance boundaries. Forty-seven states have open enrollment policies, which include enrollment of students in school within and outside of school district boundaries.
Public school transfers have existed as long as public schools. Unfortunately, access is often limited to parents with powerful relationships or who possess enough personal wherewithal to navigate an opaque system that was not designed to facilitate choice. Or, options merely exist for the convenience of school officials – such as reassigning students to prevent long transportation times.
Instead of leaving options open to only the well-connected or based on the whims of school administrators, yes. every kid supports open enrollment policies that allow families to enroll children in any public school of their choice.
Types of Open Enrollment
- Intra-district open enrollment: movement of students within their resident school district.
- Inter-district open enrollment: movement of students from one school district to another.
Every student in the state should be eligible to participate in open enrollment. Open enrollment should not be limited to certain types of students, geographies, or other unique situations. The reasons a parent might seek a different school for their child are limitless, and each family should be able to find the school that is the right fit for their child.
Choices should not be bound by residential assignment. Students should be able to attend any public school of their parents’ choice – whether within or outside of their district of residence.
Barriers to student enrollment should be transparent and based on capacity. Giving school administrators the ability to pick and choose students or set unreasonable transfer requirements defeats the purpose of open enrollment. Barriers to student placements should be limited to capacity issues, like:
- Availability of space in the school, determined in a transparent way that prioritizes student placement.
- A random lottery for enrollment if more students apply than there are available seats.
Funding should follow the child to their chosen school. State funding follows students in most (if not all) states with open enrollment policies. To the extent possible, local funds should also follow a child to the family’s chosen school.
Receiving schools/districts should see financial benefits from increased enrollment. Funding arrangements that leave receiving schools worse off due to meager per-pupil transfer income are not sustainable. Schools that parents enroll their children in should benefit from this action.
The Pitfalls of Leaving Participation Up to Districts
Across the country, open enrollment policies fall in one of two categories:
- Mandatory open enrollment policies require schools and district to accept student transfer requests with few exceptions, regardless of where they live.
- Voluntary open enrollment policies allow schools/districts to decide who they want to enroll.
A June 2017 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute studied Ohio’s longstanding voluntary open enrollment policy, which allows districts to determine whether they participate and, if so, whether they opt to enroll students from any district or just geographically adjacent districts.
The districts in dark green are those that chose not to participate, and the olive-green districts are those that chose to only enroll students from adjacent districts. Every single suburban district surrounding one of the state’s “Big 8” metro areas – Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, etc. – declined to take students from outside their district. Further, many exurban districts opted to only accept students from neighboring suburban districts. In effect, this practice has the same effect as residential assignment – creating the opportunity to treat “public” schools as selective admissions schools that prevent certain children from being able to participate based on where they live.
Many states limit open enrollment policies on factors that limit parent options. For instance, some use open enrollment as a penalty to “low performing” schools, and only allow students zoned for those schools to be able to use mandatory policies. Or they limit open enrollment for geographic reasons, like requiring schools to accept a student if they live closer to the school than their assigned district school. In practice, there are only a few states that have approached open enrollment in a way that prioritizes every family’s ability to enroll children in the public school of their choice.
Arizona state law allows students to apply for admission to any public school, based on available classroom space (A.R.S. 15-816.01). The law requires that school districts develop policies regarding open enrollment that may include transportation and that the policies shall be posted on the district’s website. Transportation is available for special education students. A school district may give enrollment preference to, and reserve capacity for, pupils who are children of persons who are employed by or at a school in the school district.
A 2017 study by the Center for Student Achievement found that a staggering 37% of districts students in the Phoenix area participate in open enrollment. This is especially notable, given that Arizona has some of the largest proportions of students participating in other choice options, like charter schools, homeschooling and private school choice. In all, around half of all students in the area attend a school other than their residentially-assigned public school.
Legislation enacted in 2016 requires public schools to enroll students from any part of the state as long as the school has capacity to serve students (F.S. 1002.31). For district-run schools, capacity is determined using the state’s existing facilities planning document, adopted annually by each district (F.S. 1013.35). For charter schools, capacity is based on the school’s contract with the district. School districts are required to post information on their website related to the open enrollment process, schools with available capacity, how to apply for enrollment in a school, information on the lottery procedure to determine student assignment (and appeals process), available transportation options (if any), and other information to educate families on the topic.
Enrollment preference must be granted to the following students:
- Dependent children of active duty military personnel whose move resulted from military orders.
- Children who have been relocated due to a foster care placement in a different school zone.
- Children who move due to a court-ordered change in custody due to separation or divorce, or the serious illness or death of a custodial parent.
- Students residing in the school district.
In 1990, Colorado’s Public School Choice Act established the state’s open enrollment policy, allowing families to send their children to any public program or school in the state regardless of their residential assignment (C.R.S. 22-36-101). Students may only be denied enrollment because the school lacks space or teaching staff, the district cannot meet the student’s special needs, or the student has been expelled for specific reasons. Districts define and measure school capacity locally and may include other enrollment criteria or eligibility criteria, such as preferences for siblings of students enrolled in the district or enrollment priority for low-achieving students. School districts do not have to accept open enrollment applicants after Oct. 1 of each year.
A 2018 report by Ready Colorado, Open Doors, Open Districts: School Choice in Colorado’s Traditional Public Schools, chronicles the success of the state’s longstanding open enrollment policies. The researchers found that over 145,000 students – 16% of the public school population – attend a public school other than their residentially assigned school.
While the largest number of students participating in open enrollment reside near large metro areas, the report finds that some small, rural districts have the highest proportion of families enrolling from outside the district. This provides a powerful counter to the narrative that rural families and districts cannot benefit from school choice.