Will Open Enrollment Create High School Sport Powerhouses?
The Missouri Legislature is currently debating several bills that would create open enrollment for Missouri students. Evaluating open enrollment’s effects on high school sports does matter, as families and student athletes across the state cherish athletics—I still fondly remember high school football games on Friday nights.
Opponents of open enrollment argue that the gap between wealthy and poor schools will grow because of sports—athletes will want to transfer to bigger, wealthier schools that offer better facilities and have more competitive teams. Here’s how a Missouri superintendent put it:
If this bill goes through, we expect to lose 100 or more students. Some will go play softball at Sullivan because they have a state-contending team, some to Union because they have a beautiful gymnasium, and some to Pacific because of their weight room facilities. Our football team was undefeated in . . . the regular season but we’ll lose kids because our facilities are not as nice and we can’t afford to fix that.
Yes, some students will likely transfer to schools with more successful sports programs to improve their athletic careers. However, this already happens. There are plenty of stories of the families of elite athletes moving to a new district, paying for a private school, or receiving a scholarship from a private school. SB5 and HB253, two bills that would create open enrollment, include provisions that restrict transfer students from playing the sport they played at their previous school for 365 days from the date of transfer.
Transfers can also go the opposite way—kids at bigger schools can transfer to smaller schools. Students can transfer to a different school to get playing time, showcase their skills, play in a system that caters to their strengths, or play for a different coach. For some, winning is not as important as getting to consistently play in front of your friends and family. Sometimes, a player just needs a new environment to enjoy a sport or unlock their full potential.
Iowa has had open enrollment for the past 30 years. A recent Columbia Missourian story quoted Margaret Buckton, professional advocate for Rural School Advocates of Iowa, on the state’s experience with sports and open enrollment:
Buckton said some rural schools would call open enrollment “the savior of their budget” because it has allowed them to afford programs they could not have otherwise. Buckton said many students prefer rural districts because they have smaller class sizes and sports programs, which gives a student a better chance of standing out on a team.
Both common sense and Iowa’s experience tell us that worrying about athletes transferring isn’t a good reason to oppose open enrollment.