Earlier this month, EdBuild released an interactive map displaying how many kids in each school district in America live below the poverty line and highlighting some particularly egregious, gerrymandered school district boundaries that exist as islands, separating education “haves” from “have-nots.”
EdBuild is an organization that focuses on school finance policy. So why are we talking about district boundaries? About half of school dollars on average come from local revenues that are mainly raised through property taxes, tying education funding to the value of the property in each school district.
This means that well-off communities have every incentive to draw and maintain borders that separate from low-income areas, which have needier students and can raise less in local funding. That system serves to divide high-need students from the resources that would help them succeed.
Open Enrollment as a Bridge
For years, advocates and researchers have talked about solving this problem by letting students choose to attend school in other districts—including allowing kids from property-poor districts to cross boundaries in order to access better-resourced schools. This policy is called interdistrict open enrollment. But in practice, it has often fallen short of its goals.
One big reason that open enrollment policies have failed to fulfill their promise is that they’re not nearly as expansive as they first seem. Today, 44 states allow some kind of interdistrict transfer option. But that number includes 32 states where access to other districts is not guaranteed.
Some leave it completely up to each school system whether or not to admit students from other districts. In other states, only students in especially low-performing schools or particular cities are promised the right to transfer to the district of their choice. Only 12 states actually make open enrollment an option for all students by mandating that districts participate. This means that in a majority of states, most borders remain closed to needy kids.
Ohio: Who Gets to Cross
Ohio’s policy is a clear example of how giving the choice to districts whether or not to participate in open enrollment deprives students of genuine options. The state is pretty expansive about its description of the program:
Open Enrollment allows a student to attend school tuition-free in a district other than the district where his or her parents reside.
But the fine print allows each school district to decide whether to take students from any district, only adjacent districts, or none. The majority of districts in the state do participate, but one specific group is conspicuously absent from the list: the suburban districts surrounding the state’s big, high-poverty cities.
Source: Ohio Department of Education Open Enrollment Task Force.
What does the policy mean for kids in struggling districts? There are 22 districts graded C or below in the state’s accountability system that have zero neighboring, high-performing districts (those rated B or higher) participating in open enrollment. And those districts are home to a lot of kids—almost 117,000, all trapped in low-performing districts with no neighboring districts willing to accept them. That’s in a state that purports to have interdistrict open enrollment.
Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Toledo and Youngstown—altogether, they serve 162,000 kids, or almost 10 percent of all public school students in Ohio. Between them, they have 78 neighboring districts, but only 15 are real options: higher-performing districts that take transfer students.
Just two of Columbus’ 17 neighbors participate in open enrollment. For Dayton, it’s 4 out of 10—but none are high-performing. Zero of Cleveland’s 14 neighbors will accept its students through open enrollment.
Let’s dive into what that means.
Cleveland has $6,775 in local money to spend per student. Its 14 neighbors have $10,195 on average. It’s no surprise they’ve closed their doors to Cleveland kids, an astronomical 49 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Those students would have to travel 22 miles to the nearest high-performing participating district, at their own family’s expense—and that district is Chagrin Falls, which enrolls only 2,000 resident students.
If it increased its operations by 200 percent to accommodate children from Cleveland, that would give about 5 percent of city students access to a better school. This is not a real choice for Ohio’s needy kids.
Raising the Drawbridge
Ohio’s story is part of a larger national problem: 32 states allow school districts to decide whether or not to accept interdistrict transfer students, with predictable results.
Policymakers have advanced “open-enrollment” policies as a purported means of building bridges for low-income students to escape segregating borders and attend schools in more prosperous communities. But the policy fails when surrounding districts are given the option to raise a proverbial drawbridge—negating the value of the policy itself.
Open enrollment falls far short of overcoming the growing chasms created by school district borders that are bolstered by our school finance system. The workarounds aren’t working: they’re bridges to nowhere. We’re spending political capital to advance policies designed to sometimes let a few kids out of islands of despair in order to turn a blind eye to the fact that the borders themselves are the problem.
It’s time for a real conversation about a systemic fix to these borders, and it must start with reforming our school finance policies.