Stand Up Blue Valley is a pro-public-education parents’ association in Overland Park, Kansas (a large suburb of Kansas City) with a reputation for milquetoast advocacy promoting local control, informed voting, and opposition to school choice. Though the group had been no stranger to drama, its antagonism towards educational choice was never any different than any other anti-school choice group.
As such, it was a surprise to many community members when Stand Up Blue Valley’s opposition to Kansas’s new open enrollment policy leaned hard into xenophobia.
That policy allows Kansas students to transfer to any public school in the state, provided that a school or district has space available.
“When your Blue Valley student gets cut from their high school sports team, remember who voted for #OpenBorders,” the group declared in a Facebook post. When several prominent community members accused them of racism, the group doubled down, proclaiming that “anti-public education forces” intended to “strain” the area’s schools.
Not all suburban opposition to open enrollment stems from racism or xenophobia, but Stand Up Blue Valley is representative of a broader phenomenon: Suburbanites are often uncomfortable with, if not outright hostile toward, public school choice.
One legislator from suburban Detroit objected to open enrollment on the grounds that other school districts would have to accept poor kids from Detroit. In Ohio, which allows districts to choose whether they participate in open enrollment, suburban districts are the least likely to allow out-of-district transfers. Not even additional funding could tempt school districts in Connecticut into accepting students from Hartford.
Suburban opposition to open enrollment has a long history, but open enrollment won’t destroy suburban schools. If anything, it might save them.
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, suburbs, which had already been growing exponentially, continued to develop and often implemented more stringent school enrollment policies to block federal desegregation efforts. These efforts took years —sometimes decades—to develop and enforce, but upon success, added tools like modern district boundaries and restrictive housing practices.
Though much of this opposition was racially motivated, suburbanites would often couch the language in the idea of “preserving neighborhood schools.” Only a few sun belt cities, like Nashville, Charlotte, and Las Vegas, which were and are consolidated city-suburb districts, were able to cultivate meaningful education mobility.
Despite broad social progress, this dynamic is largely unaltered. Whether it’s for capacity reasons (which, admittedly, cannot be entirely disregarded), economic interests, or outright racism, many suburban school districts are reflexively against external enrollment. Even during the No Child Left Behind battles, lawmakers had to weaken open enrollment policies so as not to offend suburban school districts and voters.
Traditionally, when people bought a home in the suburbs, they did so with the expectation that they and their similarly-wealthy neighbors would fund a successful school district for themselves. These schools would then attract new, equally affluent residents, and the cycle would continue. Simply put, this is the way we’ve done things for decades.
A number of factors have disrupted this way we’ve always done things—Covid-19, the baby bust, and lower immigration rates among them. Though districts in fast-growing metropolitan areas, like Sacramento, have avoided the worst effects of declining enrollment, other suburbs have not been as lucky. This is particularly true in suburbs that have historically relied on white student enrollment, which has declined by 5 percent nationwide (and by more than 20 percent in Ohio). These vast demographic shifts won’t end any time soon.
If suburban areas refuse to open their doors, these districts will have to make some tough choices. No district wants to shutter schools or lay off teachers due to declining enrollment. But without open enrollment, this is likely what many suburban districts will have to do. Operating schools at 50 or 60 percent capacity is simply unsustainable.
Indeed, some suburban school systems are already facing these uncomfortable decisions. The Granite School District near Salt Lake City closed three schools as the district lost thousands of students in the past few years alone. The story is much the same in places like Palo Alto (Santa Clara County in California), Pflugerville (near Austin, Texas), and West Hartford (central Connecticut). South Carolina may consolidate entire school districts.
As bleak as the prognosis may appear at first blush, open enrollment can help. Arizona, for example, implemented open enrollment in 1994, making it the first state to do so, and the program has been very successful. Scottsdale, a wealthy suburb of Phoenix, accepted more than 4,000 out-of-district transfers (or more than 18 percent of the district’s total enrollment) in 2014 alone. As of the 2021–2022 school year, this trend has continued, with out-of-district transfers now constituting 21 percent of Scottsdale’s student population.
This allowed the district to fill more classrooms, thereby raising more revenue for the district. In addition, many of these transfer students were minorities and/or economically disadvantaged, who may have otherwise been lost to private schools.
It’s worth noting that open enrollment doesn’t obliterate urban and rural school districts. Open enrollment allows rural schools, especially those with positive school cultures and good social services, to attract new students, and urban districts would have a greater network to promote high-performing magnet schools. Moreover, school districts would benefit from increased competition in the education market. After all, public districts who experience competitive pressure see their academic performance improve and their budgets become more efficient.
By ending resistance to statewide open enrollment policies—or by enacting open enrollment policies themselves where they have discretion—suburban school districts can adjust to the country’s demographic shifts. Open enrollment is just as important to education reform as any funding increase or private school choice program, and it is time suburbs start acknowledging it.