Last year, $360 million in public school funding was shuffled from one community to another as 72,000 students sought an education in a different school district.It’s all because of open enrollment, a process that allows parents to send their children across district borders without changing their address.
Last year reflected the largest jump in the program that is more than 20 years old.
For suburban and rural schools that want to fill out classrooms, it’s the answer to budget shortfalls and unstable state funding.
Bring in more students. Fill empty seats. Maximize efficiency. Shore up finances and offer better programs.
For urban schools, which lose a disproportionate amount of white, middle-class and high-performing students, it’s a quarter-century policy that has repeatedly raised concerns over racial segregation, unequal funding and tension among neighbors.
The program, Ohio’s first statewide school-choice option, has only been challenged in the courts once, when Akron fought back against white flight among students in the early 1990s.
That problem persists today. A Beacon Journal study of more than 8,000 urban students who take advantage of open enrollment shows these students perform better on tests, are twice as likely to be white and seven times more likely to not be poor.
A call for action
During 2013 state budget negotiations, the legislature sought to appease Sen. Tom Sawyer by requiring the governor and Ohio Department of Education to assemble a task force of local school chiefs and treasurers to sort through the information and recommend changes in the program. A Democrat from Akron, he has long called for a comprehensive study.
They met three times. Many said they were given insufficient time or information.
Nevertheless, they presented in late December a list of recommendations to the governor, House speaker and Senate president.
The thrust of their work focused on discrepancies in funding. Stronger language addressing the adverse effects on minority and poor students was either toned down or removed from an early draft.
Among other suggestions, the task force recommended more study of the program.
“It was pretty superficial stuff to be perfectly honest with you,” Sawyer said of a preliminary draft, which closely resembles the final version. “I can tell you that what we had asked for in the legislation is a good deal more comprehensive than what they’ve come up with.”
Sawyer is referring to a piece of legislation, nearly identical to one that expired on the shelf during the last General Assembly. The bill calls for a three-year comprehensive study.
School chiefs speak out
During the task force’s deliberations, educators and citizens gave public comments.
“[Open enrollment] obviously takes away kids from more affluent families with means, and leaves us with students who have challenges,” said Terry Martin, superintendent of Zanesville City Schools. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
A Wayne County superintendent touted the program’s positive effects on student achievement and his rural district’s ability to use the extra cash to provide a better education.
“Northwestern has thrived through open enrollment. Our [high school] is not a ‘School of Promise’ by accident,” Superintendent Jeffrey N. Layton wrote to the task force.
Layton also expressed concern that some districts deliberately export low-performing students with disciplinary records. These are the student he said are encouraged to attend his district.
“Yes, there are some schools whose leaders exhibit unscrupulous practices,” he wrote.
In Chillicothe, students in a wealthier neighborhood within the city school district wait outside their homes for another school district’s buses to take them away.
These high-performing students are whisked off to what their parents say is a better education.
“It’s kind of created a tense relationship for our school districts, and it’s not something I like,” Chillicothe Superintendent Jon Saxton said in an interview.
Because of limited transportation due to budget cuts, Chillicothe has called for a moratorium on the neighboring school district’s busing policy, which Saxton said is predatory.
Regardless of the tension caused by Ohio’s program, it’s growing.
Participation has more than doubled in the past 10 years, from 33,395 students in 2003 to 71,827 in 2013. The largest jump occurred last year.
Akron forecasts a 27 percent hike in the next five years. By then, more students would be leaving Akron through open enrollment than are currently attending most individual school districts.
Sometimes schools get more state funding by accepting an open-enrolled student than for their own students. Alternatively, districts that lose students may lose more dollars than the state provides in aid.
Each district’s plan relies heavily on whether it will be a net importer or exporter of open enrollment students.
Those who lose students argue too much money leaves. Those who gain students fear changing the program would mean the loss of a reliable revenue stream.
Some have had it both ways.
“I have been on both sides of this issue as a superintendent in a district [that] gained from open enrollment and now one that is hurt by this calculation. But I have always felt that the calculation is flawed and grossly unfair,” John Scheu, superintendent of Sydney City Schools, told the task force.
“We were capitalizing on this flawed system of funding open enrollment,” Doug Fries, former Lincolnview schools superintendent and current Greenville superintendent, said of building a budget surplus through sound management and largely on open enrolling students.
More students can mean the reinstatement of busing, extracurricular programs, reductions in pay-to-play fees and the restoration of cuts.
It can mean a better educational opportunity.
But for the adversely affected schools, it means the inability to accurately plan for the future and offer the programs that are needed.
By Doug Livingston - Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
©2014 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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