Open enrollment is the best school choice solution

Earlier this month, President Trump released his budget proposal allocating $1.4 billion to school choice.  On the campaign trail, he professed that states spend far more money on education than the federal government does.  In the same vein, the president wants states together to contribute $110 billion of their education budgets toward this new system.  In theory, this pool of money will result in $12,000 per pupil.

Despite the evidence supporting school choice, this proposal is unlikely to come to fruition due to great opposition and the current success of state programs.  Opponents claim that school choice takes public money and gives it to private entities, which is true.  They also claim that school choice leads to segregation in schools, which is untrue.  A more palatable option for both sides of the school choice debate would be public school open enrollment by states.

Open enrollment would permit students to enroll at any public school in their state, regardless of where they live.  This alternative to complete school choice would still give parents the option of moving their child from an underperforming school, while keeping public funds separate from private entities.  The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study​ on the impact of school choice on student outcomes in Chicago public schools.  While this study concerns school choice broadly because studies on open enrollment programs are ongoing, certain portions can be applicable to open enrollment as well.  The researchers found that students who attended a school with significantly higher math and reading test scores performed better.  However, even those students who attended lower-achieving schools still showed positive effects.

Another argument against school choice is that it will lead to the segregation of public schools.  Although seen as a possible result of school choice, public schools are already increasingly segregated.  A 2016 report​ by the Government Accountability Office found that from 2000 to 2013, public schools with high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students rose from 9 to 16 percent.  The current system of public education is evidently not working to reduce segregation in schools.  By giving children the opportunity to get out of their district if moving is not an option, their chances of attending a diverse school are higher.  In a report​​ by the Friedman Foundation, Dr. Forster states that under the current system, if a school is predominantly Caucasian, located in a Caucasian neighborhood, even a small percentage of minorities creates the illusion of integration.  He found that out of ten empirical case studies of school choice, nine concluded positive effects on racial segregation, meaning that segregation was reduced.  The remaining case study showed no visible effect.

Currently, forty-six states have some form of open enrollment.  These programs range from voluntary inter-district to mandatory intra-district school choice.  It is a disparate array of programs; however, each caters to the needs of the state.  Creating a mandatory federal school choice program will keep national government overreach in education present.  Open enrollment programs in states are still new, with the oldest dating back to the nineties.  However, a paper written by Ronald Iarussi of the Mahoning County Educational Services Center and Mahoning County Career and Technical Center and Karen Larwin of Youngstown State University suggests that inter-district open enrollment has shown positive results.  While students in the investigation did not perform significantly higher when they switched schools, their academic scores did not pull down those of their counterparts, as opponents claim.  The authors also found that students perform markedly better in their new districts than those children from their home districts.

President Trump's education proposal is overly ambitious, as many of his plans are.  The best compromise on school choice is open enrollment for public schools conducted by the states.  It would fulfill Trump’s goal of greater school choice, without complete pushback from both sides of the aisle.  School choice has been proven to be effective in improving the lives of children at low-achieving schools by giving them a way out, and it does not make racial segregation any worse than it already is.  If anything, it improves it.  Being trapped by a ZIP code is an utterly arbitrary way of servicing education.  The various issues that will arise can be mitigated, such as shifting funds to focus more on transportation.  Giving disadvantaged families the power to choose their children’s education will provide them a chance for a successful future.

Elisabeth Allen graduated in 2016 from the University of South Carolina.  She has been active in both national and state politics, working as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives and interning for Congressman Tom Rice and Speaker John Boehner.  After a brief stint in local S.C. campaigns.  Elisabeth joined the policy team at the S.C. Policy Council, where she does policy analysis and research.

If you experience technical problems, please write to