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Open Enrollment and Student Achievement

Written by Dr. Isabel Warner
Published on January 29, 2024
Research Highlights

Almost all states practice open enrollment, but programs vary considerably.

Open enrollment alone does not correlate with state and national assessment scores.

Open enrollment policies are not sufficient to explain differences in state spending, graduation rates, or attendance.

49 States have some form of open enrollment.

Open enrollment allows parents to choose where to send their children to school. While open enrollment is practiced in 49 states, with North Carolina as the exception, there are different parameters and laws governing open enrollment in each state (Ark. Code Ann. § 6-18-227;  105 Ill. Comp Stat. Ann. 5/10-21.3a; Education Commission of the States, 2022;  Ind. Code Ann. § 20-25-7 et seq.; Iowa Code Ann. § 281-17; KRS § 158.120, § 159.070; MI Act No. 34, Mich. Comp Laws Ann.  § 388.1705; RSMO  § 162.1042, RSMO §162.1045;  N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 115C-366, N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 115C-367; Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-128; Wis. Stat. Ann. § 118.51).

States vary in:

  • Whether students must transfer within district or whether they can attend out of district schools
  • Whether students can transfer to private schools
  • Whether and how much receiving districts can control the number and characteristics of students they admit
  • Whether transportation is covered by the parents, the receiving district, the transferring district, or some combination thereof
  • Whether their open enrollment programs are explicitly to address segregation
  • Whether transfer fees or tuition fees are paid by parents or the transferring district
  • Whether students receiving free or reduced lunch, or those with disabilities, qualify for assistance with transfer fees or transportation costs

Open enrollment alone does not correlate with any change in test scores.  

Because nearly all states have some form of open enrollment, it is difficult to identify the impact of school choice on state and national assessments. Older research suggests it may negatively impact test scores for students who transfer (Ozek, 2009). Additionally, more recent research shows that any gains in achievement are marginal and short-lived where they exist at all (Babington and Welsch, 2017; Cowen et al., 2017; Hong and Choi, 2015). Open enrollment policies have been shown to increase segregation (Cobb, 2022; Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, 2013; Ukanwa, et al., 2022; Whitehurst, 2017), which has a negative effect on student achievement and learning (Mickelson, et al., 2012).

English Language Arts (ELA) and Math scores from neighboring states and Midwestern states, along with North Carolina, are shown in Figure 1. There is little correlation between scores and open enrollment policies, and no correlation between state assessment scores and the national ACT assessment. Of note, some states have changed their statewide assessment grading and have seen higher test scores as a result, and others have only recently expanded open enrollment (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021; Nebraska Department of Education, 2022; K.S.A. 72-3123). In both cases, the assessment scores may not accurately reflect the impact of open enrollment.

Open enrollment does not correlate with other school or student metrics.

Open enrollment policies do not correlate with higher public school attendance, dollars spent per pupil, or graduation rates (Supplementary Fig 1). More than 80% of students in most states examined here graduate high school within 4 years, regardless of open enrollment policies (Supplementary Fig 1). Open enrollment policies where districts are responsible for paying tuition, transportation, or fees for transferring students do not result in increased dollars spent per pupil, although this may impact individual districts more directly in a way that is not captured in average spending data (Sattin-Bajaj, 2023).

 

Figure 1. English Language Arts (ELA), Math, and ACT scores for grades 3-8 in Midwestern states and those bordering MO. States are ordered by math scores. Math and ELA scores are represented as percentage of students scoring higher than proficient or equivalent. Where states have within or outside district open enrollment policies, they are labeled yellow. In addition, the type of program, whether mandatory (M), voluntary (V), or some combination of both (B), is labeled. If states have unspecified policies (U) they are left blank, and if they prohibit open enrollment, they are blue (N). States with provisions to reduce segregation or assist with costs for students in the free and reduced lunch program or students with disabilities, are labeled yellow. Districts without open enrollment, or without these provisions, are labeled blue. Transportation costs may be paid by parents (P), districts (D), specifically the receiving district (RD) or sending district (SD), or responsibilities are unspecified in current legislation (U). Similarly, in some cases, receiving districts do not charge tuition and cover the cost of transfer students, in others parents pay fees, and in others sending districts are required to cover any transfer costs. Data was obtained from each state’s Department of Education or equivalent.

 

Supplementary Figure 1. ELA and Math scores (grades 3-8) compared to other metrics of school success. States are ordered by math scores. Math and ELA scores are represented as a percentage of students scoring higher than proficient or equivalent. Other metrics of success include the percentage of students enrolled in public schools (light blue), the graduation rate (green), and the dollar amount spent per pupil (pink). Data was obtained from each state’s Department of Education or equivalent.

 

References

105 Illinois Comp. Stat. Ann. (2018). 5/10-21.3a. Transfer of students. https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=010500050K10-21.3a

Ark. Code. Ann. § 6-18-227. Arkansas Opportunity Public School Choice Act – Definitions. https://www.sos.arkansas.gov/uploads/rulesRegs/Arkansas%20Register/2004/jun_2004/005.23.04-001.pdf

Babington, M., and David M. Welsch. (2017). Open Enrollment, Competition, and Student Performance. Journal of Education Finance. 42(4): 414-432. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45093642

Cobb, C. (2022). Do School Choice Programs Contribute to the Resegregation of American Schools? The National Coalition on School Diversity. https://www.school-diversity.org/wp-content/uploads/NCSD_RB15.pdf

Cowen, J.M., et al. (2017). Public School Choice and Student Achievement: Evidence from Michigan’s Interdistrict Open Enrollment System. American Educational Research Association (AREA) Open. 3(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858417731555

Education Commission of the States. (2022). 50-State Comparison: Open Enrollment Policies 2022. https://reports.ecs.org/comparisons/open-enrollment-policies-2022-0102

Hong, S., and Wonseok Choi. (2015). A longitudinal analysis of the effects of open enrollment on equity and academic achievement: Evidence from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Children and Youth Services Review. 49: 62-70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.01.002

Indiana Code Ann. § 20-25-7-et seq. Parental choice program. https://iga.in.gov/laws/2023/ic/titles/20#20-25-7-1

Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity: University of Minnesota Law School. (2013). Open Enrollment and Racial Segregation in the Twin Cities: 2000 – 2010. https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1085&context=imo_studies

Iowa Code Ann. § 281-17.  Open Enrollment. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/iac/chapter/01-24-2024.281.17.pdf

Kansas Stat. Ann. (2023). § 72-3123. School attendance. http://www.kslegislature.org/li_2022/b2021_22/statute/072_000_0000_chapter/072_031_0000_article/072_031_0023_section/072_031_0023_k/

Kentucky Rev. Stat. Ann. § 158.120. Nonresident pupils – Nonresident pupil policy – Tuition. https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/law/statutes/statute.aspx?id=51403

Kentucky Rev. Stat. Ann § 159.070. (1996). Attendance districts – Enrollment permitted in school nearest home. https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/law/statutes/statute.aspx?id=3635

Michigan Act No. 34. (2023). Enrolled House Bill No. 4166. https://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2023-2024/publicact/htm/2023-PA-0034.htm

Michigan Comp. Laws Ann. § 388.1705. Counting nonresident pupils in membership; application for enrollment; procedures. http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(u4pd40zxalrmghdqu1znxq2c))/mileg.aspx?page=GetObject&objectname=mcl-388-1705

Mickelson, R.A., et al. (2012). Integrated Schooling, Life Course Outcomes, and Social Cohesion in Multiethnic Democratic Societies. Education, Democracy, and the Public Good. 36: 197-238. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41349029

Missouri Rev. Stat. § 162.1042 (1994).  Definitions. https://revisor.mo.gov/main/OneSection.aspx?section=162.1042

Missouri Rev. Stat. § 162.1045. (1994). State board of education to develop guidelines for enrollment option plan. https://revisor.mo.gov/main/OneSection.aspx?section=162.1042

Nebraska Department of Education. (2021). Nebraska’s College and Career Ready Standards for English Language Arts. https://www.education.ne.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/ELA-Standards-2021-8-25-22.pdf

Nebraska Department of Education. (2022). Nebraska’s College and Career Ready Standards for Mathematics. https://www.education.ne.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Nebraskas-College-and-Career-Ready-Standards-for-Mathematics-Final-062723.pdf

North Carolina Gen. Stat. §115C-366. Assignment of student to a particular school. https://www.ncleg.net/enactedlegislation/statutes/html/bysection/chapter_115c/gs_115c-366.html

North Carolina Gen. Stat. §115C-367.  Assignment on certain bases prohibited. https://www.ncleg.net/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/HTML/BySection/Chapter_115C/GS_115C-367.html  

Ozek, U. (2009). The Effects of Open Enrollment on Student Choice and School Outcomes. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Urban Institute: University of Florida. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/29881/1001301-The-Effects-of-Open-Enrollment-on-School-Choice-and-Student-Outcomes.PDF

Sattin-Bajaj, C. (2023). Student Transportation in Choice-Rich Districts: Implementation Challenges and Responses.

Tennessee Code Ann. § 49-2-128. https://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/112/Bill/SB0788.pdf

Ukanwa, K. (2022). School choice increases racial segregation even when parents do not care about race. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. 119(35). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2117979119

Whitehurst, G.J. (2017). New evidence on school choice and racially segregated schools. Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports. 2(33). https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/whitehurst-report.pdf

Wisconsin Stat. Ann. § 118-51. Full-time open enrollment. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/statutes/118/51

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