Quality education should know no borders

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Despite their pronouncements to the contrary, many of Ohio’s affluent suburban school districts are about as “public” as a gated community. That’s the right conclusion to draw from a series of recent events.

In late May, The Columbus Dispatch explored how some school districts in Ohio are rooting out students with “questionable residency” (my colleague Jamie Davies O’Leary also examined this Dispatch article here). For those unfamiliar with questionable residency, it refers to students who are enrolled in a school district where they claim to live, but who actually live elsewhere. In particular, the article focused on Bexley City Schools, citing arguments in favor of investigating residency claims from both the superintendent and the district’s law firm and investigators.

Three weeks later, we released Interdistrict Open Enrollment in Ohio: Participation and Student Outcomes. The report examined statewide data on Ohio’s open enrollment policy, which permits students to attend school in a district other than the one in which they live. Ohio’s policy is voluntary, which means it’s up to districts to decide whether to accept non-resident students. In total, 80 percent of Ohio’s 610 school districts allow open enrollees, and more than 70,000 students participate in the program. Participating districts and families alike have had positive experiences with the program, and the report’s data indicate that students can benefit academically from participating.

But not every district participates. The 20 percent of districts that opt not to admit open enrollees are on average larger, more affluent, and higher achieving than their participating counterparts. Non-participating districts are also clustered in the suburbs around Ohio’s Big Eight school districts. One of the largest clusters of non-participation can be found around the borders of Columbus City Schools. Bexley—the district at the center of the Dispatch piece and one of Columbus City’s more affluent neighbors—does not permit non-resident students to enroll in its schools Hence, the residency investigations.

The “donut ring” effect in graphic form. Nearly all of the districts surrounding Columbus City Schools are closed to outside students. Bexley City Schools, entirely surrounded by Columbus, is likewise closed.

A week after our report was released, an interesting letter to the editor appeared in the Dispatch. In it, a father living in—you guessed it—Bexley highlighted the fantastic education his son with special needs is receiving from the district. “Although I enjoy the tremendous support we get from Bexley schools and the great atmosphere we get to experience here,” he concluded, “it pains me that kids growing up a mile east or west of me don’t get the same opportunities.”

It pains me, too. It pains me that so many kids are so close to high-quality schools but so far from reaping their benefits. But most of all, it pains me that in the land of equality and opportunity, thousands of children are told that their only educational option is to attend the school they are assigned to. For some of these kids, that means attending a chronically underperforming school—and the “privilege” to attend a bad school is no privilege at all. For other kids, it’s not about a struggling school—their resident district serves them well enough, but they would be served even better by another. For both populations, the underlying problem remains: Their assigned school isn’t the right fit, but the districts around them aren’t willing to open their doors.

To be clear, this isn’t about Bexley, or any other Ohio district that chooses not to permit non-resident students to enroll. For all we know, plenty of people who work for and live in these districts strongly believe that all kids—resident and non-resident—should have access to an excellent education. Districts choose not to accept non-resident students for all sorts of reasons, and they are legally entitled to do so.

But let’s also be clear that if school districts refuse to let “outsider” kids in, the least they can do is refrain from condemning the school choice options that exist for those children outside their borders. Many of the same districts that keep their borders and doors firmly closed are the same districts that fight tooth and nail against charters, vouchers, magnet schools, STEM schools, and other kinds of choice. Districts are on poor moral footing when they refuse to help serve students from other districts, and then actively oppose those who pick up the slack and do extend education options to families. If permissible borders are out of the question, then so too should be any opposition to choice. In the land of the free, families must be free to seek out what is in the best interest of their children. If traditional districts are unable or unwilling to provide it, then families must be empowered to search for it elsewhere. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.