Tear Down These District Lines: Open Enrollment, The Secret Sauce Of School Choice?
By Jennifer Wagner
Ask someone to tell you about the largest school choice program in Indiana, and they’re likely to reference the state’s highly successful voucher program, which began in 2011 and enrolls more than 35,000 students.
They would be wrong.
Indiana’s most-used choice program is open enrollment, which allows students to move from one district to another as schools have availability. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have some sort of open enrollment policy on the books.
As choice advocates, we should be talking about this a lot more than we do.
Some 40 percent of American students now access a school or schooling option other than the one to which they’ve been geographically assigned. And then there are the folks who buy or rent a home to be within the geographic boundaries of the school they want to attend.
Most of them don’t consider themselves school choosers — and that’s a huge struggle for those of us working in this movement. It’s as if we’re trying to have a conversation about soda, but a large portion of the audience is like,” oh, soda, I’d never drink that,” while casually sipping a Coca-Cola.
It took way longer than it should have, but there aren’t many people out there who still believe you should be assigned to a school based solely on where you live. There are, however, myriad policies on the table aimed at solving that problem. Private school choice, charter schools, homeschooling and open enrollment — both within and across district lines — are the most notable.
Unfortunately, if you think “school choice” is a government-run program used only by low-income families in urban areas, you might blissfully ignore the fact that your next-door neighbor, who conveniently moved to a highly rated suburban school district when her oldest child turned five, also exercised her freedom to choose.
Same for the family that lotteried into a magnet program.
And the family that educates at home.
And the family that found an online charter school for a child bullied in the traditional system.
All choosers looking for the right fit, all people who should embrace opportunity and access regardless of schooling type.
So why is open enrollment so much more important when it comes to school choice advocacy? Because 82 percent of American families attend a public school, and that feels like a pretty solid place to start a conversation.
This could very well become a “tear down this wall” argument for the movement — a clarion call to destroy district lines so that empowered families can go wherever they want without having to move or apply or participate in a lottery.
There would be plenty of issues to work through, not the least of which are capacity and transportation (and a bunch of ticked-off homeowners whose property values are directly tied to their local school’s letter grade), but if we’re going to get people to understand and embrace choice as a concept, not a program, we have to knock down as many barriers as possible.
When I’ve run this idea by fellow advocates, some of them have pushed back that open enrollment isn’t a real choice program because you’re still forced to choose from schools within the public system.
Again, I’ll refer back to the fact that 82 percent of students currently attend public schools. Leveling the playing field for four-fifths of the total audience feels pretty significant.
As the decades have passed, our traditional K-12 system in this country has grown more and more inequitable from a number of different vantage points. We know that private school choice and charter schools have helped where they are part of the solution set, but it might just be time to upend the entire system instead of nibbling around the edges.
Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.