California’s public school districts need to attract students and open enrollment can help

A school choice bill that would’ve provided education savings accounts to students recently died in the state legislature, but California still has a path to improve school choice for parents and students in ways that parents, schools, and public school supporters should embrace.

Most students are assigned to public schools based on where they live, even if other schools are a better fit. Residential school assignment is unfair. Since better schools are often in more expensive neighborhoods, students whose families can’t afford higher housing costs are blocked from the schools in those areas.

K-12 open enrollment weakens residential assignment, letting students enroll in public schools outside their attendance zone so long as extra seats are available. Unfortunately, California’s open enrollment laws are restrictive and are in much need of improvement. With declining enrollment at Los Angeles Unified, Santa Ana Unified, and many of Southern California’s public school districts, a more robust state open enrollment program could help public schools win students back.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office reported, in 2016 and 2021, that school districts using the state’s District of Choice program used open enrollment to attract new students. In some cases, school districts that experienced attrition due to students using open enrollment to leave started to address their issues and improve and lower the number of students leaving.

For instance, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) used the District of Choice program to combat its declining enrollment. To attract new students, Riverside launched specialized programs in science and technology, dual-language immersion, and arts programming to make its schools stand out from neighboring ones.

RUSD’s Timothy Walker explained to Education Next, “Does it make money? No. But does it keep our people employed? Yes. Does it keep our financial situation stable? Yes. Does it increase educational options? Yes.”

At the same time, research in other states shows how open enrollment can help school districts. In Wisconsin, Reason Foundation research found demonstrated that school districts that lost students through open enrollment initially then went on to improve on state tests, showing that public school districts can improve when pushed by parents voting with their feet and choosing other schools.

At the same time, a 2023 EdChoice paper by Susan Pendergrass showed that school administrators in Arizona, North Carolina, Indiana, and Florida found open enrollment encouraged districts to innovate and find creative ways to retain and attract students.

These examples show that school districts can use open enrollment to attract students. Moreover, California’s families are already willing to use open enrollment. During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 156,000 students enrolled in a school outside their assigned school district.

Yet, California’s cumbersome and restrictive open enrollment options impede further participation. Accordingly, the state should streamline and expand its cross-district open enrollment option so all children can transfer to a public school outside of the school district they reside in.

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Specifically, California should eliminate its Cross District Permit System, which requires both the sending and receiving school districts to agree to each student transfer. A better policy would expand participation in the District of Choice Program to all school districts, letting any public school student transfer to another public school district with open seats. During the 2020-21 school year, more than 8,700 students participated in the currently limited District of Choice program.

Moreover, the District of Choice program offers transparency, requiring school districts to post their policies and procedures on their websites in all relevant languages for parents and policymakers. It also requires the California Department of Education to collect and publish important open enrollment data to ensure school districts maintain a fair transfer process.

If California expanded its District of Choice program, the state would have an open enrollment policy on par with excellent policies in Colorado and Delaware, which allow students to move freely between zip codes.

California’s public school districts need tools to combat declining student enrollment. More importantly, a strengthened open enrollment policy would help empower families to attend public schools that best serve their children.

Jude Schwalbach is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.  

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