K-12 open enrollment lets students transfer to public schools other than their residentially assigned one so long as seats are available. This policy enjoys widespread support, as 73% of school parents support it. Open enrollment garners significant support from both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, most of the latest open enrollment reforms were achieved with bipartisan support. With 85% of K-12 students enrolled in traditional public schools, open enrollment can help many students attend a school that is the right fit.
Yet, most states’ laws are weak, ineffective, or only available to limited student groups. In 2022, only 11 states had robust open enrollment laws. However, six states—Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia—made major improvements to their open enrollment laws during the 2023 legislative sessions. These reforms vastly improved the options in each state by making cross- or within-district open enrollment available to all students residing in them.
This 2023 analysis, Public Schools Without Boundaries, updates Reason Foundation’s review of states’ open enrollment policies, highlights new research showing the benefits of this approach, and refines Reason’s metrics for good open enrollment policy.
New Research on K-12 Open Enrollment
Benefits of Open Enrollment
Reason Foundation’s 2022 report on open enrollment included a comprehensive account of the research on open enrollment’s benefits. Education researchers, however, have already published new research this year. A 2023 EdChoice report interviewed eight district administrators from Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana, and Florida, showing that open enrollment encouraged them to innovate to retain and attract students. In response to market forces, these district administrators reported creating new or improving existing programs. In fact, “Districts and schools consistently demonstrate a strong utilization of marketing and communication strategies as they seek to market themselves and each school’s unique programs to families within and beyond district boundaries,” wrote the author.
A 2023 Reason Foundation report about Wisconsin’s cross-district open enrollment program also showed that school districts respond to competition. Not only did students transfer to school districts with better academics, the school districts that lost students to open enrollment initially improved on state tests soon afterward.
Similarly, a 2023 Becker-Friedman Institute report about Los Angeles Unified School District’s within-district open enrollment option found that the program had positive effects on student achievement and college enrollment, especially when transfer students were compared with nonparticipants. The authors argued that the competition between schools encouraged them to improve. Notably, the report found that the school quality in the lowest-performing schools improved the most. These reports illustrate that school districts can get better when incentivized.
Finally, an international paper found that most students in Spain using open enrollment enrolled in better-performing schools, benefiting “children from the lowest educational quintile” most.
Fiscal Incentives Matter
Funding flexibility is a key component to establishing the right fiscal incentives for districts to offer students more education opportunities, such as available seats. Unfortunately, many state education funding systems lack the flexibility to let dollars follow transfer students to their new schools. For instance, when school districts are “off formula” they don’t generate new dollars when transfer students enroll. This results in weak financial incentives to accept transfer students, effectively trapping children in residentially assigned schools.
Yet Wisconsin policymakers circumvented this conundrum by setting a uniform statewide per-pupil amount for all transfer students. This amount, which is reevaluated annually by state policymakers, was approximately $8,200 for the 2022-2023 school year. At the same time, the statewide per-pupil amount for transfer students with disabilities was about $13,000 for the 2022-2023 school year. If the costs of a student’s services exceed this amount, the receiving school district can submit a financial statement to the state for up to $30,000 in reimbursement, which is paid for by the pupil’s home school district.
A 2023 Reason Foundation report showed that these fiscal incentives matter to Wisconsin school districts. In fact, increased funding amounts correlated to greater school district participation. Notably, the number of students using Wisconsin’s open enrollment grew when the state increased the statewide amount that followed transfer students with disabilities in 2016.
Competition Isn’t a Death Knell for Public School Districts
Previous research from California, Texas, Ohio, and Colorado suggested that school districts, including rural or small ones, use open enrollment to bolster enrollment, especially when facing a declining local population. New research from Arizona indicates that rural school districts can successfully compete with other school sectors and each other. A 2023 Heritage Foundation report found that, since charter schools and open enrollment policies were signed into law in 1994, “There have been consolidations of rural districts in two counties, the closure of a district in a county without charter or private schools, and one new district created. The overall picture is of relative stability.” Moreover, Arizona hosts a robust array of school choice options in addition to open enrollment, showing that school districts can successfully compete in a robust education marketplace. This illustrates that school choice policies, such as open enrollment, are not a death knell for traditional public schools.
Open Enrollment Can Ameliorate Address-sharing
A 2023 Available to All report found that 24 states criminalize address-sharing—a practice where parents falsify their address to gain access to a public school other than their assigned one. Parents caught doing so can face hefty consequences, including being incarcerated in 20 states and fined in 16 states. For example, parents caught address-sharing in Texas can receive maximum prison sentences of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of $10,000. Robust open enrollment laws, however, can reduce the number of families risking address-sharing since it weakens the tie between housing and schooling.
Open Enrollment Best Practices and Updates
Open Enrollment Best Practices
Reason Foundation finds there are five key components to robust open enrollment laws. While no state has fully adopted all five best practices yet, six states have adopted at least four of them.
|Reason’s Five Best Practices for Open Enrollment|
|#1 Statewide Cross-District Open Enrollment
School districts are required to have a cross-district enrollment policy and are only permitted to reject transfer students for limited reasons, such as school capacity.
|#2 Statewide Within-District Open Enrollment
School districts are required to have a within-district enrollment policy that allows students to transfer schools within the school district, and are only permitted to reject transfer requests for limited reasons, such as school capacity.
|#3 Transparent Reporting by the State Education Agency (SEA)
The State Education Agency annually collects and publicly reports key open enrollment data by school district including transfer students accepted, transfer applications rejected, and the reasons for rejections.
|#4 Transparent School District Reporting
Districts are annually required to publicly report seating capacity by school and grade level so families can easily access data on available seats. Open enrollment policies, including all applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted on school districts’ websites.
|#5 Children Have Free Access to All Public Schools
School districts should not charge families transfer tuition.
Overall, six states—Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah—have implemented four out of five of Reason Foundation’s best practices for open enrollment. Unfortunately, 19 states, including Texas and New York, have not implemented any of the best practices.
State-by-state Open Enrollment Analysis
# of Best practices adopted
Statewide cross-district open enrollment
Statewide within-district open enrollment
Transparent SEA reports
Transparent district reporting
Public schools free to all students
|States with positive policies||16/49||13/50||3/50||8/50||24/50|
Best Practices Updates to Reason’s 2022 Open Enrollment 50-State Analysis
In the 2022 version of this report, a transparency provision requiring that “districts must post their open enrollment policies and procedures on their websites” was included in the metric for statewide cross- and within-district open enrollment. This provision is important but fits better under the fourth metric, transparent district reporting.
This update amends Reason Foundation’s best practice metrics to expand transparent district reporting to include this provision and exclude it from Reason’s metrics for statewide cross- and within-district open enrollment. This change does not negatively impact any state’s ranking from 2022, but it does positively impact the rankings for five states. As a result, Nebraska and South Dakota now receive positive rankings for statewide cross-district open enrollment, while California, Ohio, South Dakota, and Washington now receive positive rankings for statewide within-district open enrollment.
In the section enumerating ways to improve Minnesota’s open enrollment policy, the 2022 report omitted addressing the artificial cap the state’s school districts can place on transfer students. In addition to other suggested policy reforms, Minnesota must eliminate this artificial cap to meet Reason’s best practices standard for statewide cross-district open enrollment. Eliminating this cap, just as Arkansas did this year, would strengthen
Lastly, the “State-by-State Open Enrollment Analysis” in the 2022 study mistakenly gave checkmarks to Maine and Michigan for prohibiting school districts from charging public school tuition. Yet, as the summaries for both states noted, school districts can charge public school tuition. Stopping school districts from charging public tuition to non-resident students, just as Montana and North Dakota did this year, would improve Maine’s and Michigan’s policies.
Most states need to make their open enrollment policies transparent. Despite the metric adjustment and open enrollment victories this year, every state can still improve its open enrollment policy. No state meets all five of the open enrollment best practices in Reason’s checklist.
Using Reason Foundation’s open enrollment best practices checklist, only 16 states have statewide cross-district open enrollment; only 13 states have statewide within-district open enrollment; only three states have transparent state education agency reporting; only eight states have transparent school district reporting; and 24 states ban charging tuition to transfer students and make public schools free to all students.
Originally published by Reason Foundation. Republished with permission.
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