0 out of 5—What a Score
The Reason Foundation just released a new report on how (or if) states are letting families choose their public school—a policy that 73 percent of parents support—rather than be assigned to one based on their address. Open enrollment in any public school, regardless of district lines, allows students to find a better fit within the public school system. Most surveys find that students use these programs to move from lower-performing to higher-performing schools
The Reason report identified five best practices for open enrollment policy. Numbers one and two are that students should be able to choose any school within their district or in a different district. Number three is requiring the state education agency to maintain and report all open enrollment-related data. Number four is requiring districts to transparently report how many open seats they have for transfer students. And number five is ensuring the program is free to all participating families.
Missouri has struggled to pass even a watered-down version of open enrollment. In the 2023 legislative session, an open enrollment bill made it through the House and through the Senate committee level, but never made it to the governor’s desk. This bill would have created an open enrollment program that districts could opt out of, limited student movement, and allowed districts to deny transfers to students with disabilities. It was not an ideal bill, but it was still too controversial to pass.
The Reason report graded each state on a scale of one to five depending on how well the state had implemented each best practice. Not surprisingly, Missouri got a whopping zero out of five on the Reason scale. The only real cross-district option for Missouri parents is to pay tuition to another district. Last year, Missouri families spent $1.6 million of their own money to do just that. If parents try to lie or falsify their address—for example, claiming that their child lives with a grandparent—they face up to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Not exactly family friendly.
Our neighbor, Kansas, does much better. In fact, the Reason report calls Kansas “an outstanding example of robust open enrollment.” District participation is mandatory and districts must report their open seats by June 1 of each year. The Kansas Department of Education must report the number of transfer applications accepted or rejected on its website and must annually audit school capacity and non-resident student enrollment and report findings to the legislature.
I wonder if a parent in the Kansas City metro area would prefer to live on the west side, where their right to choose a public school that fits their child is protected by the law, or on the east side, where they could be incarcerated sending their child to a school in a different district?