Open enrollment--quality choices or just business?

Inter-district open enrollment often flies under the radar in discussions about school choice. It may be that way because it has been around so long (established in 1989 and operating in its current form since 1998); perhaps because it is not universally available or because many of the most-desirable districts do not allow open enrollment; or perhaps because it is choice “within the family” (that is, the traditional district family). Despite its usual low-profile, two recent newspaper stories shined light on the topic of open enrollment, showing a disconnect between those administering this unsung school choice program and those who actually use it.

From a district’s point of view, open enrollment can easily devolve into “just business” – dollars in and dollars out to be accounted for year after year. Just check out this story from Hancock County in Northwest Ohio. Net financial “winners”—those districts that have more open-enrollee students coming in than leaving—seem to be fine with the system, as might be expected. But net financial “losers” are objecting more strenuously as the losses go on. Their objections, however, often have very little to do with why students are attending a school outside of their “home” district. In fact, most of the district officials quoted in this in-depth piece don’t even seem curious as to why large numbers of their residents are opting to go somewhere else when given the opportunity – even when seizing that “opportunity” requires jumping through several hoops.

When long application lines and even longer daily commutes are more preferable to families than staying in their home district, surely that is a signal that something is lacking.

The best way for districts to keep their students at “home” is to make their offerings more attractive than the other options. But that requires seeing from a family’s point of view, and this open enrollment story from Northeast Ohio shows that it takes some extraordinary efforts on the part of parents to help districts to see things differently.

The background: a “net winner” district started feeling guilty about taking so much money from its neighbors and decided to trim the number of open enrollment seats it would fill in 2014-15. Who knows how many green eye shades it took to work over those figures, but the final number was well below the number of kids currently in the district from elsewhere. It seemed inevitable that they would have to kick some kids out to reach the goal. Despite assurances to the contrary, the district did just that, non-renewing nearly three dozen students who had been open enrolled and attending school in the district, in some cases for years.

A predictable stink arose and last week the school board was forced to retreat in the face of strong parental protest, reinstating all the kicked-out students who wanted to return. While I’m glad that the parents’ wishes were supported by the district in the end, the families have got to wonder after that struggle whether they are really welcome or if their children are just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Meanwhile, sitting on the desks of the Governor and the leaders of the General Assembly, is the report of the Ohio Open Enrollment Task Force, delivered on December 31, 2013. In it, an august body consisting of district and joint vocational school superintendents and treasurers from across Ohio, assisted by high-level ODE staffers, made recommendations on open enrollment. Where did the task force fall in the “just business” vs. “student centric” dichotomy?

The process recommendations were but two: more regular guidance from ODE to participating districts and inclusion of information about open enrollment numbers on districts’ report cards. The financial recommendations consisted of three very detailed options to change the funding mechanism and increase “fairness” for those net loser districts. In other words, it’s just business.

It is perhaps lucky for the more than 71,000 students already taking part in open enrollment – like those in Northeast Ohio who had to fight for their seats – that the task force at least noted that open enrollment is “an appropriate and viable state strategy” for providing quality education to students, because the public input gathered by the task force was largely negative. Not on grounds of quality or choice, but on the grounds of financial difficulties for the net money losing districts.

So, for families open enrollment is like all other school choice options (a better education which they’re willing to do a lot to get and willing to go to the mat to keep); for districts, it appears to be “just business”.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,