As new kids on the school choice block, education savings accounts and pod schooling are grabbing the headlines these days. But an old stalwart—interdistrict open enrollment—is also worthy of attention. These policies have been around for decades in many states, generally yield the largest choice programs wherever they are established, and typically draw less opposition than their charter and private school choice peers. A new report from Reason Foundation examined Wisconsin’s program as an exemplar and deems it a model that other states should consider emulating.
At its most basic, interdistrict open enrollment allows families living within the boundaries of one public school district to send their children to schools located in another district. Rules regarding district participation, transportation, and funding vary from state to state.
In Wisconsin, open enrollment began as a bipartisan effort in 1998. Each school year, districts are required to identify the number of seats they will make available for open-enrollment students based on data such as student-teacher ratios and building capacities. The number of openings by school building and grade level must be publicized so that families have a list of what is available and where. Students may apply for a seat in up to three different districts. Districts can evaluate applicants based on their discipline history and truancy, as well as whether they believe they can meet the needs of the students. Random lotteries result if demand exceeds capacity. The primary application window runs from February to April of the previous school year. There is also an alternative application window in late summer specifically for students who have been the victims of violent crime, have experienced bullying, or moved to Wisconsin from another state after the primary deadline.
On the funding side, money is transferred from the district of residence to the receiving district. The dollar amount, which is state funding only, has increased every year but has always been less than the average per pupil funding amount (state and local funding combined) in the state. Receiving districts must accept this amount—$8,125 per pupil in 2020–21—as full funding, and no additional tuition can be charged to parents. Home districts keep an average of $5,624 in funding per departed student (again, state and local combined), and even the lowest-funded (a.k.a. wealthiest) districts retain more than $1,800 per student with no further requirement to provide services for them. In 2016, far larger amounts were approved for students with individualized educational program (IEPs), amounting to several thousand dollars per student above the normal transfer amount, reflecting the additional services needed. Receiving districts can also apply to the state for further reimbursement after an IEP student’s first school year if the actual cost of serving them exceeds the regular amount—up to $30,000 per student. Finally, low-income families are eligible for transportation reimbursement from the state based on a per-mile amount between home and school. However, all families opting for open enrollment must provide the transportation themselves, and needy families must accrue a year’s worth of costs up front before they can even request reimbursement. The reimbursement fund is limited and thus generally does not fully pay for eligible miles.
In analyzing participation data, the report provides four key findings. First, increasing the window for program entry increases participation. Open enrollment jumped nearly 20 percent in the first year that Wisconsin opened the second window, despite limitations on who could apply at that time. Second, families are motivated by academic performance. Districts with better outcomes on state tests tend to gain more students via open enrollment, while districts that perform poorly tend to lose more students. Third, districts that lose more students than they gain through open enrollment in a given year initially improve their performance on state tests, although these effects dissipate after three years. Fourth, increases in the transfer funding amount are correlated with greater district participation. As the amount of funding transferred to the receiving district has increased over time, districts have taken in more students through the program.
These findings are correlational, not causal, but that doesn’t stop the authors from being very jazzed about them. Their recommendations: more money and more transparency to boost all the benefits observed, and other states should follow Wisconsin’s model.
Certainly there are some positives in Wisconsin that are worth emulating elsewhere. Requiring districts to quantify and advertise openings and centralizing parental applications are huge improvements on other states’ optional participation and district-by-district, family-by-family processes. Making sure that home districts keep some funds does work to stifle predictable dissent from net losing systems, but obviously there is a limit to this as the amount following students grows. There is also some evidence that non-academic factors such as racial composition of schools and size of the student body play a factor in incentivizing moves. And finally: However much a program like this brings more resources into districts having more open seats, a skeptic might suggest that student-teacher ratios and building capacities don’t magically change as a result. Surely there is a simpler way for the state to buy (or create) more open seats in more good schools.
Nevertheless, we return where we began, noting the durability and popularity of interdistrict open enrollment. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Wisconsin’s program began with a mere 2,500 participants. Despite limitations, it continues to grow. In the 2020–21 school year, Reason reports that nearly 8.5 percent of all public school students in the state—more than 70,000 kids—opted for a district school other than the one in which they resided. That is really the key takeaway.
SOURCE: Will Flanders, “K–12 Open Enrollment in Wisconsin: Key Lessons for Other States,” Reason Foundation (February 2023).