Benefits of open enrollment from an Ohio superintendent's perspective

Lowellville Local Schools

Dr. Geno Thomas

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

Lowellville Local Schools in Mahoning County, Ohio, where I am superintendent, has participated in Ohio’s open enrollment program for almost 20 years. Our district enrolls about 600 students annually, about 54 percent of whom attend from outside Lowellville’s district borders through Ohio’s open enrollment option. The program’s impact on our schools and students has been overwhelmingly positive, yet there has been some skepticism about open enrollment across the state. Most of these criticisms seem territorial at heart or seem to stem from a philosophical opposition to choice. Folks might ask, “Why should taxpayers have to pay for students who live outside their district?” or they may wonder about capacity issues, overcrowding, or transportation issues when serving kids outside of their bounds.

But there are other aspects of the program worth knowing about—real benefits for students, families, educators, and communities when districts opt to allow students via open enrollment.

1)      Greater course offerings. In Lowellville, given the manner in which funding follows the student who opts into another district, we’ve been able to take these resources and offer extended courses such as Italian, robotics, STEM, computer-aided design, and higher sciences to students who are interested. These increased opportunities not only allow us to stay competitive in our course offerings around the region, they also allow students to flourish academically within a smaller class size setting.

2)      More and better choices for families. Lowellville's reputation and longitudinal data reflect academic excellence above and beyond the surrounding districts' performance. Open enrollment affords parents the choices to enroll their children in Lowellville Schools. A 2015 study performed by Dr. Ron Iarussi from the Mahoning County ESC and Dr. Karen Larwin from Youngstown State University strongly reflects the increased academic achievement of open enrolled students from surrounding districts as compared to the students who remained in their resident districts.

3)      Diverse student population. Our participation in Ohio’s open enrollment program enables Lowellville schools to be more socioeconomically and racially diverse. There are real benefits to our residents as well as students by enabling them to interact with and collaborate with folks from other backgrounds. It also helps prepare our students for real-world experiences outside of rural Ohio.

4)      Fosters healthy competition. Open enrollment indirectly places pressure on schools to perform at their highest levels, engage with families, and meet student needs. It motivates districts to attract students—and to keep them—which I think is a positive trend for public schools. 

Some critics suggest that the primary reason districts open enroll is because they are forced to do so by an inadequately funded school system. There’s no doubt that open enrollment provides extra resources to districts with a large inflow of students through the program, which can be especially helpful in rural communities. And it hurts a district’s bottom line when students leave for another district. But having worked in education for 25 years, I must support what’s best for students, even if and when that means they decide to go elsewhere.

Open enrollment is a widely used program of choice offered by the majority of Ohio’s 614 districts that enables more students and families to find the right educational fit. As Lowellville’s experience shows, there have been many benefits of participating in the program. More districts should follow suit.

Dr. Geno Thomas is superintendent of Lowellville Local Schools.