Will economics increase school choice?

In a turn of events that reflects today’s economic and fiscal realities, the Reynoldsburg City Schools’ board of education approved an open enrollment policy last week. The decision is noteworthy as Reynoldsburg will become the first of Columbus’ suburban public districts to adopt an open enrollment policy.

Under Ohio’s open enrollment policy, public school districts can voluntarily admit students from other districts, at no cost to the student. Districts throughout the state have generally adopted open enrollment; nearly eighty percent of Ohio’s 664 public schools districts participate in open enrollment according to the Ohio Department of Education. However, few open enrollment districts are located near Ohio’s metropolitan areas, a fact shown in the chart below.

Figure: Number of districts adopting open enrollment by Ohio metro area, 2011-12

Source: Ohio Department of Education. Note: District count is based on the county in which the major city is located.

A district of nearly 6,000 students, Reynoldsburg City Schools serves the middle-class, eastern suburbs of Columbus. The district maintains an “excellent” rating from the state (its second-highest rating), and around eighty to ninety percent of its students reach proficiency in math and reading every year. Open enrollment risks these sterling academic marks. Due to Reynoldsburg’s proximity to Columbus City Schools, the district may absorb lower-caliber students from disadvantaged parts of the city who are seeking a better schooling option.

What has induced Reynoldsburg to change its policy? Principles of school choice? Compassion for kids stuck in Columbus’ low-performing east-side schools? Neither. Rather, economic reality has compelled the change. With a projected deficit of $3.5 million for next school year, Reynoldsburg residents were given two options: either raise property taxes, or adopt open enrollment, a policy that would bring $5,700 per open-enrollment student. When faced with the choice of higher taxes or open enrollment, Reynoldsburg’s board, with resident support, approved open enrollment. In an interview with a local paper, one Reynoldsburg resident, who had been initial skeptical of open enrollment, voiced her support after a public meeting with school officials, “Without adding any cost to our community, an open enrollment policy would bring in additional revenue and families eager for quality education.”

In a piece in last week’s “Choice Words” blog, my colleague Adam Emerson, narrates the unfortunate story of how a high-performing Louisiana district has refused to enroll voucher students from outside their district. (See also Rick Hess’ reply and Emerson’s rejoinder.) In a courageous—though economically self-interested—move, Reynoldsburg provides evidence that not every suburban district is busily pitching iron fences around its schools. In certain situations, open enrollment can generate win-wins—for outside families wanting a better school and for families inside the district wanting tax relief. And if Reynoldsburg can successfully manage its open enrollment program, we may soon find other suburban schools following suit, expanding school choice for students and parents living in Ohio’s metro areas.

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