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Interdistrict Open Enrollment

March 4, 2022
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WRITTEN BY Dr. Brittany Whitley and Dr. Alan Moss

Executive Summary 

Interdistrict open enrollment allows students to attend a public school outside of their district of residence. Mandatory open enrollment policies require districts to accept transfer students, although schools are often allowed to set their own enrollment limits and have some flexibility to choose which students are accepted. When not associated with an intentional desegregation program, open enrollment policies in some Midwestern states are associated with increased school segregation by both race and income. The most equitable and successful interdistrict choice systems provide stable state support for tuition and transportation costs, as well as specific enrollment criteria to ensure that all students can access school options. House Bill 1814 would allow parents to enroll their children in school districts where they own residential or agricultural property within a school district if they have paid school taxes on those properties for the previous 3 years. The proposed legislation also provides several procedures for students to transfer to schools in other districts and would allow mileage reimbursements to parents transporting transferred students if they qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch programs. Additionally, a “Parent Public School Choice Fund'' would be established with a $60 million dollar appropriation to pay for qualifying mileage reimbursements and for special needs education of transferred students. 

Highlights 

  • In the absence of specific criteria for interdistrict transfer, schools with high local property wealth and/or schools adjacent to predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods often create barriers to enrollment that effectively limit choices for many students in underperforming schools and exacerbate school segregation.
  • In states that rely heavily on local funding for public education (e.g., Missouri), resident districts are responsible for paying higher tuition costs for students who transfer to other schools. For schools in regions with low local property wealth, these transfer costs can reduce school revenue significantly and limit their ability to improve school quality.
  • Most states with open enrollment programs do not subsidize transportation, which can make it difficult for some poor and working families to access the full range of choices.

Limitations 

  • Because state and county open enrollment characteristics vary widely across the country, it is difficult to predict the exact program criteria that would prevent or reduce segregation in Missouri. These criteria may also vary regionally (i.e., rural vs. urban).
  • There is limited research that directly compares how student performance varies across neighboring districts that either allow for or restrict interdistrict transfers. It is also difficult to directly determine if the academic success of transfer students is caused by the transfer program itself or is reflective of other factors that drive open enrollment participation (e.g., high academic achievement, family involvement, motivation).

 

This Note has been updated. You can access the previous version (published December 2020) here.

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