Open enrollment, Colorado and Texas style

The Irving (Texas) Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which serves approximately 33,000 students across 37 schools, is one of several districts in the state that offer open enrollment.

While public school systems nationwide have had difficulties dealing with COVID-19, specifically around reopening classes to in-person activities, it’s clear the pandemic has opened many avenues for innovation. One example has come out of Colorado, where school administrators have opened public school enrollment to great success.

A recent Chalkbeat report found that Colorado has embraced public school open enrollment to great effect, with more students taking advantage of the opportunity to cross zoning lines than ever before, resulting in a 9% increase in students moving across districts.

The distribution of students attending schools outside their districts is not evenly distributed. In fact, the districts most likely to lose students to competing schools saw even greater decreases in enrollment. Unsurprisingly, a generally reciprocal increase in more desirable schools was found, too. Chalkbeat reports:

Where students went didn’t change much, though. The districts that already had high numbers of out-of-district students had even more this school year, and those districts that typically lost a lot of students to other districts continued to see that.

Colorado is not alone in pushing for open enrollment. States that have made similar pushes have found similar results. In Texas, the Reason Foundation found that parents sent their children to higher-performing districts when open enrollment was expanded:

Our analysis finds that three percent of Texas students transferred to a traditional public school outside of their assigned school district in the 2018-2019 school year.

These students tended to transfer to higher-performing school districts as measured by state accountability grades. In 2018-2019, roughly 45,000 Texas students transferred to a higher-performing school district at least a letter grade above their residentially assigned district.

The fact that open enrollment accelerated the trend of parents sending children to higher-performing districts indicates two things.

First, it shows that parents know their child’s district is underperforming. Parents must be able to identify good schools for open enrollment to fully flourish, and so this is a positive sign. Furthermore, it provides evidence that many parents had sent their children to local schools in previous years because zoning laws forced them to do so. It’s unlikely that open enrollment districts would return to stringent zoning laws.

Second, the fact that parents continued to send their children to districts that already were accepting more out-of-district students shows that higher-performing districts can maintain high academic rigor. If this were not the case, the trend would either start decreasing or reversing. But neither is happening. This is important because research suggests a school’s academic quality is the primary driving factor in open enrollment flows.

While Texas and Colorado are taking the right steps toward accommodating open enrollment, there is still much work to do. The good news is that 47 states allow some type of open enrollment. Unfortunately, the specifics and ease of these transfers vary greatly between states and districts. The variety is so great that a table provided by the Education Commission of the States is shockingly byzantine.

Some states have specific desegregation criteria that affect enrollment ability while others charge for moving across district lines. In other cases, the distance one must travel between schools is taken into account. Some states have mandatory inter-district open enrollment, while others allow only intra-district movement.

While these concerns may seem important to public school administrators, for parents, such regulations are unwieldy. Asking parents to go through arduous protocols to send their child to a school they know is better creates an adversarial relationship between parents and administrators. Students get caught in the middle.

Colorado has done the right thing by expanding criteria for public school enrollment. The move toward open enrollment has been beneficial for many Texas parents as well. More districts in the Lone Star state are following suit, and the number of children enrolling in schools of their choice is growing across the country.

Expanding open enrollment opportunities is a critical victory for students and parents alike. For students, it paves the way for higher educational achievement. For parents, it provides flexibility and peace of mind that their child is succeeding. While it may put pressure on administrators to deal with fluctuations in enrollment numbers, it is a worthwhile sacrifice if it benefits the student body.

We owe it to our kids to give parents the opportunity to enroll in the school of their choice through the vehicle of open enrollment.