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Narrow Window or Open Door for Students?

Comments | Posted in mi perspectives | By MacIver Institute | Posted January 14, 2011 11:01 AM

Open enrollment between public schools has been a staple of Wisconsin education for years, allowing families to choose classrooms outside of their own districts. However, some districts want to limit that freedom.

Several Wisconsin school boards have joined together to push a proposal that supports limiting open enrollment. This would restrict the number of students that would be able to transfer between districts –and handcuff many charter and virtual charter schools across the state.

Open enrollment grants students the freedom to choose between publicly funded classrooms to find the best fit regardless of their location. In a state known for pioneering private school choice, this flexibility across public schools has been an important counterpoint to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. For families across the state, this policy creates the only avenue for students to access the institutions that fit them best –and is especially important in areas with failing public schools.

This is an issue that has gained recent relevance with the rise of public charter schools, including public virtual charter schools across the Badger State. As these schools have become more prevalent, Wisconsin policy has become more relaxed regarding these transfers, allowing for more students to attend out-of-district schools. This culminated in a complete cap lifting on all open enrollments in 2006.

Open enrollment has grown steadily over this time, increasing by over 20,000 students statewide. But now some districts want to reinstate limits and rein in the choices that parents have in Wisconsin.

Leadership in Green Bay, Random Lake, Palmyra-Eagle, Barron, Sparta, Wisconsin Heights, and Pardeeville came together to create a resolution that supports restricting the number of open enrollment transfers in a district. Two other communities, Black River Falls and Algoma, wrote letters of support expressing their confidence in the proposal. This level of approval has been enough to warrant a hearing with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards’ (WASB) Delegate Assembly, and the issue current awaits approval.

However, not all of Wisconsin is on board. A recent school board meeting in Baraboo presented arguments opposing the resolutions that would impede families’ freedom in the public schools as well as hamper the development of local charter and virtual schools. Despite typically falling under the proposed annual three percent limit when it comes to student transfers, Baraboo’s school board still rejected the proposal based on the idea that it could be harmful to students and families.

Elmbrook is another district looking to improve its schools through expanded open enrollment. Faced with declining local enrollments thanks to a population shift, the community there is looking into creating more spots for out-of-district students. However, leaders there understand that students won’t come unless they provide superior educational opportunities; as a result major educational improvements are being discussed alongside this expanded enrollment in order to bring more students to Elmbrook.

If adopted, the WASB resolution would change the organization’s stance on open enrollment, dropping their suggested cap from a current figure of 10 percent to three percent. According to the MacIver Institute’s 2010 Student Census , 28,025 students – 2.74% of Wisconsin’s entire population - currently use open enrollment transfers in their most basic form. Another 3,635 attend public online charter schools (.36%), which often educate students from neighboring districts who qualify as transfer students. As a result, this cap wouldn’t affect all of the state’s communities, but could have a significant impact in districts like Milwaukee, where a greater percentage of students are opting out of their local public schools and into neighboring classrooms.

Students in these districts would be handcuffed to failing public schools by geographic limitations. Without unlimited open enrollment, their only way to escape would be by paying for private school out of pocket. Unfortunately, this is a contingency plan that some families just can’t afford.

Restricting open enrollment would ease the accountability for districts where low performing schools are at risk of losing students. As a result, schools have little impetus to improve and families can get stuck with chronically bad classrooms. The outcome is a simple one; local communities lose.

This is an issue that has been brought to light recently thanks to situations in Madison and Stockbridge. The Stockbridge School District recently filed to block eight families from transferring out of the system, citing the 10 percent transfer cap that had expired in 2006. This ruling was rejected by the Department of Public Instruction and local and state circuit and appeals courts , thus ensuring that these families would be free to choose which public schools their children attended.

Madison faced a similar situation, as the district had to deal with losing more students than it gained through the open enrollment process. The capital city lost 613 students to transfers and gained 178, losing a portion of their per-student funding but retaining over $2,000 in state equalization aid to take care of students that the district did not have to educate. Despite complaints, the city still lost just 2.5 percent of their students to open enrollment –under the proposed three percent cap.

However, there is also a sizable component in Wisconsin that is rallying behind the idea of expanded open enrollment in the state. State Senators Luther Olson, Leah Vukmir, Alberta Darling, and several others are supporters of SB 2, which would expand the open enrollment sign-up period from three weeks to three months. This would ease the burden on families looking at transfer options, as well as allow for more time for parents to fully examine their educational options.

Still others are advocating for even more freedom, arguing that if a receiving district is willing to take new students year round, the state should not deny students the opportunity to attend the public school of their choice.

Though complaints are rising about the potential loss of students and the funding that follows them, some districts are standing up for families. Open enrollment is a small part of the choice landscape available to families in Wisconsin, but it is an important one. Now, it’s being threatened with limits despite serving and benefitting public school students. We’ll known where WASB officially stands next week, when the Delegate Assembly votes on the recommendation to stem open enrollment January 19. If Wisconsin’s school boards care about accountability and the education of every child, they’ll shoot down the cap.

By Christian D'Andrea
MacIver Institute Educational Policy Analyst