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Opinion | Open enrollment should be part of Michigan's education reforms

During Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent State of the State Address, she proposed making “bold investments” in K-12 education to ensure every child gets a great public education. The governor's just-released budget plan calls for a nine percent increase in state school aid spending, Bridge Michigan reports. One cost-effective way to help every student is to improve Michigan’s outdated open enrollment policy.


Jude Schwalbach is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and author of the report "Public schools without boundaries," which examines open enrollment laws in all 50 states.

Open enrollment lets students transfer to public schools outside their residentially assigned catchment zone or school district if they have available seats. Michigan uses these catchment zones and school district boundaries to sort students into public school classrooms, but these lines often reflect socioeconomic borders and historical redlining in communities. 

A student might want to transfer to a new public school to access better academic opportunities, get specialized classes in an area of interest, escape bullying and more. Unfortunately, Michigan is one of the many states whose open enrollment laws fall short of sound policy. Michigan’s School of Choice open enrollment program, created in 1994, is supposed to give families educational options beyond their assigned public schools. In the 2018-2019 school year, 98 percent of Michigan school districts said they participated in the open enrollment. But this percentage is deceiving.

School districts can cap the number of transfer students and limit access to certain grades, academic programs and particular schools. The Education Policy Innovation Collaboration at Michigan State University found that more than half of participating public school districts limited the number of transfer students. Approximately 73 percent of Michigan public school districts excluded access to certain grade levels, nearly 61 percent excluded transfer students from certain schools, and more than 52 percent excluded kids who were hoping to enroll in specific programs during the 2018-19 academic year.

These artificial limits allow protectionist school districts, often wealthier suburban districts, exclude transfer applicants from lower-income areas, even if there are open classroom seats for them.

The law says Michigan will withhold 5 percent of a school district’s state funding if it opts out of the state’s cross-district open enrollment policy. It appears, however, that schools are participating in the program in name only to avoid losing funding while implementing very restrictive transfer policies that block students.

Instead of penalizing school districts, the state should encourage districts to accept transfer students with financial incentives. Schools are more likely to take transfer students if they don’t fear being short-changed on the funding needed for them. 

But money doesn’t always follow students from their old school districts to new ones. Open enrollment policy should center around a single per-pupil amount of funding that follows students across school district boundaries to their schools. 

Making sure state and local education money follows students to the public schools of their choice, with additional funding for students with special education needs, is crucial to overcoming today’s discriminatory public school boundaries.

Research from Wisconsin shows how effective positive financial incentives can be. 

Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy is among the best in the nation. It is utilized by almost 10 percent of the state’s public school students as families often transfer to school districts with better test scores. When school districts lose students to better schools, test score data shows that Wisconsin’s low-performing schools start to improve during the next two years as they try to retain their students.

Wisconsin also provides parents and lawmakers transparency, publishing annual reports on the number of transfer students, the number of rejected applications and why applications were rejected. This transparency is critical to ensuring protectionist school districts aren’t closing their doors to students whose families may not be able to afford a mortgage or rent in that neighborhood. The public accountability that comes with transparent data reporting also ensures school districts all play by the same rules and don’t reject transfer applicants for superficial reasons.

Michigan should strengthen its open enrollment policy by eliminating artificial enrollment caps, aligning financial incentives, and publishing reports about important transfer data. These reforms would help Michigan’s public school system meet the needs of families, no matter where they live, by letting kids attend the public schools best for them.

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