In April, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured the Van Wert school district in rural northwestern Ohio along with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. In such sparsely populated communities, private and charter schools are usually scarce. But does that mean school choice does not exist? Absolutely not: In a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed published just before her visit, Secretary DeVos noted that “parents or guardians of nearly 20 percent of students who live within Van Wert’s district lines choose to send their children to a nearby district.”
She was of course referring to interdistrict open enrollment, a public school choice policy that allows students to attend school outside of their “home district” without having to pay tuition. While open enrollment often flies under the radar, it’s among the oldest and most widespread forms of school choice in America. Minnesota passed the nation’s first open enrollment law in 1988, and several other states, including Ohio, enacted similar laws shortly thereafter. Forty-four states now allow some form of open enrollment: Some states require their districts to participate in open enrollment (it’s mandatory), while others leave that decision to local districts.
Like any choice initiative, open enrollment offers families a wider range of alternatives than just their “zoned” public school. They may opt to open-enroll their child for any number of reasons, including access to more rigorous or specialized academic programs or to ensure their kids can attend school with close friends. Sometimes a school operated by a nearby district is actually closer than their assigned school. Open enrollment can also offer continuity to families who move their residence across district lines: They can open enroll into their “old” school district instead of having to switch to a new one.
Open enrollment also offers districts an opportunity to expand their reach across traditional boundary lines. Districts with excess capacity in their schools can generate additional revenue by welcoming open enrollees. Assuming the district attracts more open enrollees than it loses, the funding that accompanies the newcomers may help districts widen their academic offerings, ease local tax burdens, or simply deal with the fiscal consequences of enrollment loss.
Interdistrict open enrollment also draws its share of concerns. While the “receiving” districts garner additional revenue as well as pupils, the “sending” districts lose state money whenever a student exits. Meanwhile, some people fret about how accepting open enrollees might dilute the resources available to educate “in-district” students. (An uglier version of that concern is distaste for educating “other” children in “their” schools.) Another obvious issue is capacity. Schools with no empty seats cannot serve more students without making costly new investments—and some inbound children may have needs that a given school is ill-equipped to meet. Consequently, state open enrollment policies typically allow districts to deny admission in cases like these.
From where we sit, the central question about open enrollment is whether it does any good for the kids who avail themselves of it. To our knowledge, just two rigorous statewide analyses—one each from Michigan and Colorado—have studied the students who use open enrollment to attend public schools in other districts. Both studies found scant evidence that students see test score gains or losses when they open enroll. In Ohio, a small-scale study in Mahoning County (Youngstown and its surrounding areas) found no relationship between open enrollment and test results.
We sought to add to this meager literature by examining statewide data from Ohio (Fordham’s home state). The Buckeye State has a voluntary open enrollment policy, so districts are able to decide whether to participate. Today, 80 percent of Ohio’s 610 school districts allow open enrollees and more than 70,000 students use this choice option. To conduct this analysis, we turned to professors Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma and Stéphane Lavertu of The Ohio State University, both of whom led a previous Fordham study (on school closures in Ohio). They are exceptionally skilled in empirical methods, and with the assistance of the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Education Research Center, were able to examine anonymous student-level data over the six-year period of 2008-09 to 2013-14.
The authors used these data to explore several questions: Which districts welcome open enrollees—and which do not—and what are their characteristics? What types of students open enroll? Are they more likely to be from advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds? What is the relationship between open enrollment and changes in test scores or the likelihood of high school graduation? Are there differences in outcomes by key subgroups of students or by regions of the state?
Their analysis yields four main findings:
- Few affluent suburban districts permit open enrollment. As the map on page 12 shows, non-openenrolling districts—“walled” districts, one might say—encircle Ohio’s largest inner cities, known as the Big 8. These major urban districts—including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus—average 63 percent black and Hispanic students and have long struggled with low student achievement. In contrast, the non-participating districts on their borders enroll far fewer minority youngsters (18 percent) and post some of the highest test scores in the state. These “doughnut rings” around the Big 8 effectively bar tens of thousands of low-income, minority students from the opportunity to attend school in higher-achieving districts. It may be, of course, that some of those districts have no room for more pupils; but we cannot avoid suspecting that a form of exclusion is also at work.
- The study reveals two distinguishable groups: “Transitory” and “consistent” open enrollees. About two thirds of open enrollees fall into the former category—they attended both their home district and open enrolled into another during the years they were observed in the study. The other third open enrolled every year under observation. The backgrounds of the two groups differ: Transitory open enrollees are more likely to be lower-achieving and students of color when compared to consistent participants. The analyses of academic outcomes focus on consistent open enrollees—students who likely receive sufficient “dosages” of the program—though the results for transitory participants are also analyzed and reported.
- Consistent open enrollment is associated with zero to modestly positive academic gains. While the analysis cannot prove causality, the authors’ rigorous statistical analyses showed zero to positive results for consistent open enrollees. The variation hinged in part on the analytic approach. Compared to similar pupils who never participate, open enrollees gain about two to four percentiles on state math and reading exams—a modest but not trivial outcome. Under a slightly different statistical approach, the gains are not statistically significant. An analysis of graduation rates also indicates that consistent open enrollment throughout high school boosts the likelihood of on-time graduation. The years of available data, however, limit this analysis to just one cohort of students. As for the transitory open enrollees, the analysis found no evidence that they either make gains or experience losses on state exams.
- Consistent open enrollment among African American students is related to substantial academic progress. Although African American students were just 6 percent of the open enrollees in our Ohio data set, the evidence indicates that those who open enroll on a consistent basis made relatively large gains. Compared to their non-open-enrolling peers, participation is associated with test score gains of about ten percentiles—e.g., moving from the 50th to 60th percentile in math or reading. The positive findings for African American students correspond to analyses indicating that all consistent open enrollees who live in the Big 8—where many minority students reside—make gains relative to peers who remain in those districts.
We offer two takeaways.
First, when families use choice on a consistent basis, their children are more likely to benefit. That appears to be the case for Ohio’s open enrollees—those who use it for consecutive years make test score gains, albeit modest, while their transitory peers do not reap the same achievement benefits. This finding mirrors charter school studies that have also found that students tend to accumulate gains when they attend the same school for multiple years.
Sticking with choice is not easy, however. It takes commitment on the part of families and students; receiving schools, of course, have a role to play in ensuring that e very pupil feels welcomed and well-served year after year. Policy makers can also guide parents in making decisions that work for their kids. Through a transparent school accountability system—properly balanced between growth and proficiency measures—they can nudge families towards quality schools or steer them away from less satisfactory ones. Regional or community organizations can help families navigate among their choices by hosting school exploration fairs, promoting school visits, or publishing clear, impartial information about the schools in their vicinity. With expanding choice—especially when it crosses district boundaries—transportation policies may need to be retooled to break down logistical barriers. Briefly stated, families need the information that enables them to make wise choices and the wherewithal to make those choices viable in both the short and the long run.
Second, we note the disturbing map of Ohio’s open enrollment program. Urban, minority students—those whom data indicate benefit the most from open enrollment—have the fewest open enrollment options. The reason: Most suburban districts that adjoin Ohio’s big cities refuse to accept non-resident students. This is troubling in several respects, not least because it perpetuates an educational system where low-income and minority students are denied opportunities available to their more advantaged peers. It also calls into question how “public” are school districts that don’t accept all-comers. These are akin to “public” swimming pools that are only open to families living inside a gated community. It’s painful to speculate about how many residents of those privileged enclaves are outraged by President Trump’s proposed border wall even as they turn a blind eye to the walls in their own backyard.
We acknowledge that some closed districts may not have the capacity to on-board many additional students. We also realize that some residents may not like the idea of educating kids whose families don’t pay taxes in their towns, whether those prospective arrivals live in poor urban areas or wealthy districts next door. We understand, too, that for many families, it’s simply impractical to make long, daily treks across district lines. Still and all, it’s wrong to deny the possibility of educational service to any family, much less to turn away neighbors in need. At the very least, we ask today’s walled districts to quit calling what they do “public education.” Because they don’t welcome everyone, they’re functionally more like “private school districts” where the price of a home buys a seat for one’s child in the local school. We also suggest that residents of such places ask themselves whether it’s fair to criticize urban schools—district, charter, or private—when their own schools refuse to admit children living just a few miles away.
With the election of President Trump, many are wondering how to revitalize rural and small-town communities, schools included. For families living in places such as Van Wert, Ohio, interdistrict open enrollment has become an important school option for their kids. To their credit, the overwhelming majority of Ohio districts have opened their doors to students no matter where they live. It doesn’t matter that altruism and public-mindedness is not necessarily what drives that openness. As one Ohio superintendent told the Lima News, “Our district has become smaller and smaller and it is no secret that open enrollment is our lifeblood.” Meanwhile, for the refusenik districts—listed in the report—we urge board members and superintendents—and voters—to reconsider their decision to wall off their public schools. Indeed, in the spirit of President Reagan, we say please tear down those walls.
Download the full report here.
 Interdistrict open enrollment should not be confused with intradistrict open enrollment—choice within districts—which is not the topic of this report.