School Choice Open Enrollment—A Variety of State Programs

December 11, 2014

students-taking-testRecently, constitutional challenges have been made to Wisconsin’s open enrollment school choice program, highlighting the fact that while the state has been on the forefront of school choice innovation, potential problems remain in the system. Nearly all states have some sort of open enrollment program, with significant differences in how the programs are administered. For students attending public schools, there are two basic kinds of programs available: intradistrict public school choice, and interdistrict public school choice.

Intradistrict programs allow students to transfer to any school within their school district. Thirty states have this type of program, which can be either voluntary or mandatory. Many depend on the availability of space for the transferring student or require the student to meet certain admission requirements. The most common type of intradistrict school choice program allows a student to transfer to a specialized school within his or her own school district, either inside or outside of his or her neighborhood school. Many of these schools offer alternative or accelerated programs, and often have selective admission policies. Many programs mandate that a transferring student come from a low-performing school. One program, in Massachusetts, mandates that students can transfer to address a racial imbalance.

In contrast, interdistrict school choice programs allow a student to transfer to any school outside of his or home district, theoretically to any school in the state.  Two states, Indiana and Nevada, will also allow transfer students inside and outside of the state. One of the difficulties with interdistrict school choice programs is the cost of transporting students to the non-local districts. For most states, either the parents or the student is responsible for transportation, with some districts offering assistance for low-income or special need students.  Another problem with interdistrict school choice programs, similar to that of intradistrict programs, is that many of them are voluntary, and districts can simply opt out of the program altogether. For those states that do have mandatory programs, there are often opt out provisions as well, including for a lack of space. In Vermont, for example, a high school board can cap the number of students allowed to transfer school districts. Other reasons for opting out of mandatory open enrollment include having no programs available to meet the needs of the student, creating hardship for the district, or if the student is expelled or truant. In Colorado, the student may be denied admission to maintain compliance with a desegregation plan, and in South Carolina, enrollment may be denied if it would result in riot, civil commotion, or would disturb the peace.

As evident by the variety of open enrollment programs and the differences in administration, it is no surprise that challenges to the programs arise. The differences in intradistrict versus interdistrict programs, as well as the disparity in voluntary or mandatory school district participation make it likely that much more litigation will follow regarding the validity of open enrollment school choice programs and the benefits they can give to students.