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Opening doors for public school students

State legislators consider open enrollment as a school choice solution

Students outside Wyandotte County High School in Kansas City, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel, file

Opening doors for public school students

In eastern Kansas, just outside the Kansas City metro area, high school students in Unified School District 232 scored a composite average of 22.1 on the ACT last year — beating the national average of 20.3. But not every Kansas district shared that high performance. In the Wichita School District, about an hour north of the Oklahoma border, the average score was much lower, at 17.3. And scores varied widely between Wichita schools: Northeast High School students scored an average of 19.9, while West High School students scored 15.4.

As lawmakers, educators, and parents around the country debate how to help students regain educational ground lost during the pandemic, some are considering disparities between schools. Kansas lawmakers are weighing a proposal to help students attend the school that best fits their needs, but the measure is facing unexpected challenges. While some advocacy groups herald the bill as an opportunity for disadvantaged students to attend schools that are better-performing or a better fit, many school officials oppose the idea.

Republican state Rep. Timothy Johnson introduced the Kansas bill allowing for open enrollment. Johnson said he grew concerned about what he saw as a lackluster response from some schools as legislators worked to help them recover from COVID-19 disruptions. He asked a colleague, “What if we could let kids that are in the districts that aren’t meeting the needs have an opportunity to go to the schools that are?”

Currently, Kansas law allows districts to accept nonresident students, but it doesn’t require them to. The new bill would allow Kansas families to choose the public school they want their children to attend, as long as it has enough room, regardless of the district. Districts would have to establish plans to determine their capacity for accepting nonresident students.

In February, 19 people submitted written testimony to the Kansas House about open enrollment. Only four supported the bill.

Kansas’ bill is certainly a big swing in the open enrollment world,” said Shelby Doyle, spokesperson for the National School Choice Awareness Foundation. “They’re not going incrementally up — this would be quite a change to their open enrollment policy.”

Legislators combined the Senate and House bills with another measure about flexible education options, HB 2615. Once the text is finalized, both chambers must vote on the measure again.

Other states have already paved the way for open enrollment. Nearly all U.S. states allow for some measure of transfer policies: 43 allow for transfers outside of the student’s district and 27 allow for transfers to other schools within the district. Nor are all state rules voluntary: 24 states require schools to accept out-of-district transfer students, while 19 states require schools to accept students initially assigned to other schools in the same district.

But Doyle said many parents aren’t aware of the option. “In its most basic terms, open enrollment is just choosing a neighborhood public school other than the one that you’re zoned for,” she said. “But a lot of families aren’t sure if they’re eligible for it, or whether their school participates.”

Many parents want their children to stay in a public school, but are often looking for a different one to take advantage of sports, a specific class, or a language class being offered, Doyle said. While the National School Choice Awareness Foundation offers information on several forms of school choice, she said the last two years of the group’s website traffic show the highest interest in open enrollment.

In February, an EdChoice survey of U.S. adults found 70 percent of Democrat respondents and 63 percent of Republicans approved of intradistrict open enrollment, or students transferring within their district. Numbers were identical across party lines with regards to transferring between districts: 68 percent of Democrats and Republicans were in favor.

That bipartisan interest is lacking in the Kansas Legislature, however. The state Senate passed a measure on open enrollment March 22 by a margin of 23-16. Only Republicans voted for the bill. The next day, in the House, 63 Republicans voted in favor of an open enrollment measure, while 59 senators (both Republican and Democrat) opposed it.

Because both chambers have a Republican majority, Rep. Johnson said, “sometimes any issue right now, here in Kansas, it’s an automatic opposition.” He suggested some Democratic lawmakers may be concerned about losing students — and funding — in blue districts.

Often, concerns about open enrollment revolve around funding or logistics. Some opponents express concern about students transferring multiple times a year or transferring late in the year. Others worry nonresident students will drive up costs that are met by resident families’ property taxes. North of Kansas City, officials from Fort Leavenworth Unified School District, with a predominantly military family constituency, wrote that their school population moves so often that determining capacity for out-of-district transfers would be difficult.

Transportation needs sometimes keep open enrollment from being equally accessible, Doyle said. Some states require schools to figure out transportation, and some expect parents to problem-solve the issue, she said.

Other concerns revolve around authority. Some suburban districts, the Kansas Association of School Boards, and the Kansas State Board of Education said the transfer question should be settled locally and not at the state level.

But Americans for Prosperity–Kansas state director Elizabeth Patton disagrees, because education funding happens at the state level. “These students, they’re all Kansans,” she said. “Yes, we have different districts, but at the end of the day, even those themselves are created by statute within the state.”

Rachel Jorgensen, a PTA board member and former teacher in Lenexa, Kan., submitted written testimony to the Kansas House in February, saying she feared her children’s Title I school would lose families. “I know from experience that people assume things about our neighborhood school without ever stepping foot in the building, based off what people have said and test scores that they see online,” she wrote. “If this bill were to be passed, schools that are already struggling will lose valuable families from their learning communities.”

Patton said funding and capacity issues aren’t insurmountable. She thinks the final version of the bill that has passed through committee will address some of those concerns, though she added that the final text of the bill wasn’t available as of Monday afternoon.

“It is highly unlikely that this will be something that would be untenable for any district,” she said, suggesting that if “droves and droves of students” are leaving a school, that likely highlights the need for open enrollment’s added transparency and accountability.

Other states are also looking to widen open enrollment: Missouri is considering a bill to allow some students to attend school in districts where a parent pays taxes, even if it is outside the district where they live. Iowa senators voted for a measure last month to broaden qualifications for open enrollment.

Patton hopes families will have more choices for their children’s education. “If you think about public pools or libraries, we don’t restrict those taxpayer institutions based on where kids live,” she said. “Not all districts look alike in our state or any state. Not all schools look alike … We should then, in our view, eliminate some arbitrary boundaries and allow for families to make that decision for themselves.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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