Will Legislature Cave to Education Bureaucrats on Open Enrollment?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Like many parents, my wife and I meet with our children’s teachers at the beginning of each school year. We have learned the hard way you can’t wait until the first report cards and the first parent-teacher conference to really get a grip on how our children our doing in school. The one thing we stress to the teachers is don’t wait to tell us there is a problem. Let us know immediately so we can address it.

For some parents and some school children, sometimes the problems are really too difficult to solve for the school where the child is enrolled. Sometimes a change needs to be made, preferably right away.  And sometimes the answers to a child’s educational needs are found in the next school district. The current limits on open enrollment make that change in schools difficult.

Unfortunately, the law does not allow for the parent to make the open enrollment choice year round. This is important because if a parent gets into the school year and discovers a problem with the child’s school and the school district is no position to fix things, then the parent and the child are stuck in that terrible situation. The only alternatives are home schooling and enrolling in a private school.

The Assembly version of SB2 would require parents, for nine months a year, to beg for permission to enroll / transfer their child in another public school.

When my son was in first grade in the Waukesha School District, some of the teachers and aides at his school did not have a professional reaction to my columns for the Waukesha Freeman. They made comments to my wife when she volunteered at the school. She kept them from me at first because what could we do? It’s not like we could just switch schools and escape the problem, even if the district allowed it.

However, if open enrollment had been allowed all year, my son might not have wasted a year in a classroom where we weren’t welcome. We could have sent our child to a school in a different district where the unprofessional animosity would have been less.

Allowing open enrollment all year would mean that parents would be empowered consumers of education rather than prisoners of geography. They would be allowed to have only the interests of their children when making their educational choices, and adapt when circumstances change.

It’s a common sense change in the law, but as we have seen common sense is in short supply in Madison. Republicans in the State Senate passed a bill that would have basically allowed the expansion of open enrollment to all year if the receiving district had room to accept new students. However, when the bill was considered by the Assembly, they amended it only allow open enrollment if the school district where the child is currently enrolled agrees, except under very exceptional circumstances (custody issues, bullying, crime, threats of violence).

Otherwise the open enrollment window closes after three months. A marginal improvement over the current three-week enrollment period, but the Assembly version of the bill does nothing to help the parent who discovers after the school year started that their child’s education is in need of a change of school districts.

So the bill, SB2, has now passed each house in different forms. The Senate’s version empowers parents; the Assembly’s version keeps the bulk of the power in the hands of school administrators.  Why is that?

In an interview with WTAQ’s Jerry Bader last May, current Assembly Education Committee Chairman State Representative Steve Kestell justified the limits on open enrollment by complaining about the marketing efforts of online public charter schools. He actually said he was afraid they would run television commercials all year to recruit students. Heavens, no!

I must have missed their commercials in between WEAC’s television ads promoting traditional public schools–that is when WEAC was not running ads to support the recall of some of Kestell’s Republican colleagues in the Senate.

Yes, online public charter schools (with union teachers) may benefit from a few more enrollees during the school year if parents choose that route. However, the bill is not just about those schools. It’s about expanding educational opportunity for all public school students in Wisconsin by empowering parents to make the decisions as circumstances dictate. That means all public schools can accept students from outside provided they have the space available, not just the ones that happen to have internet-based classrooms.

Leaving school districts with a de-facto veto over any student leaving their district is to cave to the status quo and a recognition that the convenience of the bureaucrats running the schools is deemed more important than the children who attend them.

We thought this legislature and governor had different priorities.  As the saga of SB2 continues, we’ll see how true that is.