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Would competition help public schools? Open enrollment is open question

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2009 - Remember when Ma Bell lost her monopoly and suddenly everyone was faced with a wide -- and often bewildering -- array of choices about what telephone service would be best?

Educators and lawmakers around Missouri hope that one day soon, parents could face the same competitive choice about where to send their children to school.

The issue is called open enrollment, and the goal is simple, supporters say: To give parents options to send their kids to whatever public school they think will give them the education they are looking for.

Joe Knodell, a former school superintendent who now leads the Missouri Education Reform Council and is one of the leading proponents of open enrollment, puts it this way:

"I truly believe that competition makes everybody get better."

But his enthusiasm isn't shared by everyone. A legislative hearing Wednesday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis brought forth a series of concerns: How can a district plan, what will happen to special education students, what effect will it have on student achievement, will parents continue to support their district's schools if students living elsewhere show up?

Byron Clemens of the American Federation of Teachers in St. Louis told the lawmakers:

"So-called competition could further divide the have districts from the have-not districts."


While open enrollment would be new to Missouri schools, many other states already have it. The Education Commission of the States has a handy table summarizing the policies that families in each state nationwide may take advantage of if they are unhappy with the school their students attend. About 15 states have fairly broad policies allowing open enrollment.

In general, such policies are divided into two types. Intradistrict enrollment lets students attend any school within the boundaries of the district where the students live; generally, those policies are determined by the districts themselves.

What is now on the table in Missouri is the second kind: interdistrict open enrollment, which would allow students to attend public school in any other district in the state.

While the details differ from state to state, Knodell said the plans generally operate something like this:

Families whose students would like to attend school in a district other than the one where they live would apply several months before the school year when they want to switch. If the district where they want to go has room, it would accept students on a first come, first served basis.

Districts would be allowed to decide how many slots they have open, depending on their guidelines for class size, the room in their buildings and other factors. Districts that do not have space would not have to accept transfer students.

Financially, the state and local tax money that supports a child's education would follow that child to whatever district he or she attends. Transportation would be the family's responsibility.

Those are the basics, though as always, the details might prove to be difficult to iron out. What would happen to students with special needs? Could districts go out and recruit star athletes or standout science students or gifted musicians? What would happen in areas like St. Louis, where lengthy desegregation lawsuits have already prompted a degree of open enrollment?

While true open enrollment is still under discussion, Missouri already has a few limited ways that students may attend school outside of their home district. According to the law, students whose home district is unaccredited -- like the St. Louis public schools -- may attend school in a district in an adjacent county.

Also, students whose home district poses "an unusual or unreasonable transportation hardship because of natural barriers, travel time, or distance" may apply to attend school elsewhere.

In the first case, though, a spokeswoman for the city schools said no students have transferred to a St. Louis County district because of the accreditation issue. In the case of transportation hardship -- which the state considers to be a bus ride of 75 minutes one way -- Roger Dorson, coordinator of administrative services for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said maybe 5-10 requests are filed each year, and most of them are denied because they do not meet the time requirement.


In this year's legislative session, Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, introduced a bill for open enrollment. Though it didn't pass, lawmakers agreed to include in another school bill a provision that a special legislative committee would hold hearings into the issue

In Jefferson City, Branson and St. Louis, the lawmakers heard a variety of opinions. In some cases, parents told how their students would spend less time en route to class if they could attend a school in another district that is closer than the school in their home district.

From the educators' point of view, administrators and others expressed concern that they would have a hard time planning if they had to include possible transfers, in terms of finding room for students and finding qualified teachers and other staff.

Paul Ziegler, superintendent of the Northwest R-I schools in Jefferson County, noted Wednesday at UMSL that the location of his district's high school is inconvenient for some families in the northern part of the district because of the physical boundaries. In some cases, he said, families may be closer to Rockwood Summit High School in St. Louis County.

"Open enrollment could prove devastating for Northwest R-I," he told the lawmakers.


That sentiment was echoed by many other administrators, as well as by Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, which urged its members to attend the hearing and voice their concerns.

One of the big reasons the boards oppose open enrollment, Ghan said in an interview, is money.

"It's very unclear to us how open enrollment could work from a financial standpoint," he said. "Pretty significant inequities would develop if you have a kid with a parent in one district with a certain property tax rate they are paying, and that kid goes to another district where people are paying another tax rate.

"Parents would not be paying the true cost of educating that child in a neighboring district. Some school districts in effect could be subsidizing the cost of education in other districts."

He said the problem would be particularly acute in the case of special needs children, who cost more to educate than others.

"The issue seems to be gaining some interest in the Legislature" Ghan said. "We are trying to make sure that legislators understand that there are serious implications for school districts if they go down this path."


Kathy Christie, chief of staff for the Education Commission of the States, says no research has been done on the effect of open enrollment on academic achievement. And she says that in states where the policy is already in place, there hasn't been much of a rush to switch districts, particularly given the fact that parents are still responsible for transportation costs.

"If you're a low-income parent and working two jobs," she pointed out, "it's pretty hard to cart your kids to an out-of-district school. And kids often don't want to leave their friends or their neighborhoods, when you get right down to it."

Knodell, of the Education Reform Council, admits that problems will have to be worked out. But he says that's no reason not to give open enrollment a try. Answering some of the objections, he said:

  • "If Billy lives in District A, you could send him to District B, and if he didn't like it, he could come back to District A. But he could never go back to District B. It's a one-shot deal."
  •  Usually, when states go into school reform in one way or another, open enrollment is where they start. That creates competition just like we have a lot of good universities in Missouri because they compete with each other. Competition makes everything better."
  • "This is a battle between parents and students and the educational establishment. Education as an establishment hates change. They're comfortable where they are and don't want to change anything. But if you don't like open enrollment, what do you like? They really don't have an answer for that."

Knodell also noted that if desegregation concerns worry people about implementing open enrollment in St. Louis and Kansas City, those urban areas could be excluded from the bill. And he acknowledged that next year, with many lawmakers up for re-election and budget problems looming, open enrollment isn't a sure bet to get enacted.
But that doesn't mean it won't take place, he said.

"I had open enrollment in my schools," the former superintendent in southeast Missouri said. "Any time I got a phone call from someone who said I just moved across the border into another district but I want to keep sending my kids here, I just said unless they get the legal system involved, it's OK with me."