By Andrea Medici
Since the 1950s school choice has been implemented in many forms to support the education system in the United States. Open enrollment is one such approach that requires school districts to enroll students who reside in other districts. This is a particularly pertinent subject to Florida as the 2017-18 school year marked the first mandatory participation of every school district, including Leon County, in the state’s open enrollment policy program.
An open enrollment policy gives parents the deciding role when considering which school is most fitting for their children. While this policy reduces geographical barriers to school attendance, it increases competition for students at the school and district levels. There is an added element of strategic behavior since school districts are encouraged to cater to parents’ preferences.
A survey conducted in 2006 by Sarah Drisko in a northern California school district indicated that more educated parents are likely to participate in open enrollment and actively search for new schools for their children. The survey showed that parents carefully research the level of school resources as well as the demographic and socioeconomic status of schools when deciding where their children might attend.
Because transportation costs are borne entirely by families, nearby or adjacent school districts are likely destinations for unsatisfied parents. In a scenario where a student from one district decides to go to school in another district, the district from which the student is leaving, also referred to as the sending district, is subject to a loss in state funding due to lower enrollment and is responsible for paying a percentage of tuition to the receiving district.
When comparing school districts, presumably parents are interested in the policies and school resources that are most beneficial to educating their children, such as teacher quality, resources available for students with disabilities, parent involvement programs, and school facilities. This generates an incentive for a school district to change policies and school inputs according to parents’ preferences to attract students or at least retain them. This incentive system works effectively among adjacent districts because school officials may regard these districts as their chief competitors for students and tend to be knowledgeable about their policies. A study conducted by Johannes Rincke published in the Journal of Urban Economics measuring the effects of open enrollment on Michigan public school district competition found evidence of this strategic behavior. As districts adopted the open enrollment program, adjacent districts were likely to participate in the program as well. This may result from the fear of losing students to other districts that have already adopted open enrollment.
The introduction of open enrollment policies into the United States’ education system spurred competition among school districts by incentivizing schools to see the educational needs of each student as a source of revenue. Because school inputs and resources attract the attention of parents, school districts monitor their competitors to improve their performance. Empirical evidence shows the presence of strategic behavior by school districts, where clusters of nearby school districts are likely to take up similar policies, to a certain degree. Open enrollment appears to be an effective market-based education reform that benefits participating students as well as those staying in their school district.