America’s school choice moment has finally arrived, but the vast majority of students nationwide (84 percent) still attend traditional public schools—and will for the foreseeable future. Conservatives would be wise to support policies that give families choices within the public education system. Cross-district open enrollment does precisely that, and it has strong bipartisan support.
Indeed, the opposite of open enrollment, residential assignment, is among public education’s most antiquated practices. Students’ public schools are determined based on where they live. School district attendance zones often reflect the legacy of the discriminatory and now-illegal boundaries imposed by housing redlining. The federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration reinforced racial segregation, codifying preexisting boundaries set by developers and homeowners associations decades ago.
For many, residential assignment is an insurmountable barrier to better educational opportunities. These government-imposed geographic lines fracture communities by inextricably linking housing and schooling. Families are pressured to sacrifice valuable goods, such as living near their family, friends, and churches, to guarantee they have access to quality public schools. Ironically, this means that many families sometimes sacrifice the invaluable voluntary associations Alexis de Tocqueville described as essential to the American experiment in favor of government-imposed ones.
Furthermore, residential assignment maintains public school districts’ monopoly over students by limiting parents’ ability to hold schools accountable. Unless they can afford to pay private school tuition—or move across town—families have no leverage to pressure their district schools to improve or be responsive to their desires. To tip the balance of power toward students and families, education dollars should follow students to any school, public or private, just as Milton Friedman envisioned.
In 1980, Friedman and his wife, Rose, explained that in a system with school choice, a public school’s enrollment “would be determined by the number of customers it attracted, not by politically defined geographical boundaries or by pupil assignment.” While open enrollment would not eliminate residential assignment, it would weaken the boundaries that arbitrarily sort students into schools, representing an essential step toward the education marketplace the Friedmans described.
It would also benefit students and school districts. First, studies consistently show that students tend to transfer to higher-performing school districts when given the opportunity. For example, a study of Wisconsin’s open enrollment program found a positive relationship between districts’ state test results and student-transfer inflow, with separate analyses showing similar findings in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Texas.
Research also shows that students transfer schools for various reasons, indicating that open enrollment can help them access their best-fit education. Separate evaluations of California’s District of Choice program by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) found that students participate in open enrollment to escape bullying and access curricula, instructional philosophies, and other programs that aren’t available in their home districts. In its latest analysis, LAO reported that participating students “gained access to an average of five to seven courses not offered by their home districts” across several course types, including Advanced Placement and career technical education.
Open enrollment can also have positive competitive effects, with the Reason Foundation’s Wisconsin study finding that districts that lose students also post modest signs of improvement in the two years following enrollment losses. California’s LAO evaluations provide evidence of students’ home districts taking steps to better engage their communities and pursuing reforms to reduce student attrition, such as addressing programmatic concerns and improving access to within-district school transfer options. These efforts appear to work. Many of these school districts saw reductions in the number of students transferring out and improved their test scores over time. This shows that public school competition can foster excellence, making open enrollment the tide that raises all boats.
Fostering robust open enrollment isn’t easy, however. It requires both strong policy and portable education funding. State policymakers must overhaul their student-transfer laws so that students are guaranteed tuition-free access to any public school across their state, with few exceptions—primarily, that a school is full or overcrowded and cannot accept more students. These revamped policies should establish clear expectations for school districts and ensure that timelines, school-level capacity, and other important information are easily accessible to parents and all stakeholders.
State education agencies should be required to collect and report key open enrollment data at the school district level, including the number of transfer applications received, reasons for rejecting transfer applications, and number of transfer students enrolled. Policymakers must also ensure that state and local education funding follows students to the schools of their choice. Otherwise, school districts might have financial incentives to block transfer students who live outside their boundaries. This problem is unique to each state, but Wisconsin serves as a good example of how one state successfully addressed it with a straightforward policy solution.
Editor’s note: This is a modified excerpt of the authors’ American Enterprise Institute policy brief “The Conservative Case for Public School Open Enrollment” (June 2023).