I was greatly honored last year to be appointed by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin as a commissioner to the Education Commission of the States. ECS is an interstate compact formed in the 1960s to serve as a policy and idea-sharing network. Among the many services it provides to education policy makers is its annual National Forum on Education Policy, which I've been delighted to attend this week. In a couple of posts I want to share some key ideas and reflections I'm taking home with me.
Open Enrollment. On Wednesday I had the chance to attend a concurrent session on expanding school choice through open enrollment policies. We've had some very preliminary conversations in Kentucky about the implications of such a policy, which would basically allow students to attend any public school in the state where there is an opening available, even if it is outside the district where the child's family resides, and state and federal education dollars would flow with them to their school of choice. Under current Kentucky law, districts may voluntarily enter into transfer agreements with one another and negotiate terms. Open enrollment would essentially require all districts to abide by a statewide inter-district transfer policy.
Instinctively I like this idea because I believe in expanding education options so that all families, regardless of their income or ZIP code, have a better chance of finding a school that meets their child's needs. I am uncomfortable with the idea that politicians or education bureaucrats could tell a family where their child has to attend school. But every policy comes with implementation challenges and unintended consequences, and it is important to consider these early in the conversation. In the ECS session I attended we learned about how open enrollment policies work in Arizona and Florida (according to a recent ECS report, 14 states have some form of "mandatory" open enrollment). Here are some key considerations I noted that would need to be thoughtfully addressed in any proposed open enrollment law:
- Will some students be given preference to exercise open enrollment? Some states stipulate that students who meet certain criteria be given priority for openly enrolling in another school, such as disability status, having a parent in the active-duty military, being in a failing school, etc. In some cases the children of employees at the school also have priority. Arizona stipulates that an open enrollee may never "bump" aside a student who actually resides in the school's catchment zone if space is limited.
- Will parents of open enrollees be provided transportation? Most states leave it to parents to arrange transportation for students who attend in another district, but this can mean that for some families, open enrollment is not a practical option. Dawn Wallace from the Arizona Governor's office reported that, in practice, schools work closely with parents to mitigate this challenge, providing transportation to students if the parent can at least get the child to a bus stop within district, or actually sending busses across district lines where there is sufficient demand from open enrollees.
- Will there be windows for open enrollment and when and how will education funds be transferred? In Kentucky, where we have many small districts, an abrupt loss of several students before the beginning of a school year could have negative affects on school funding when teachers are already under contract and school budgets are already established based on anticipated enrollment. And open enrollment policy would need to consider when to transfer education dollars for open enrollees and the potential impact on their "resides" school.
- What will we do about athletics? Will open enrollees be allowed to play sports in their new school? What will prevent schools from engaging in recruitment for athletic purposes? Arizona prohibits open enrollees from playing athletics at all. Florida, which has just adopted a more sweeping open enrollment process, has not addressed this issue, so only time will tell how this will play out. States might stipulate that an open enrollee is prohibited from participating in athletics during the first year of transfer. It's unfortunate that this may be one of the biggest areas of concern, but athletic passions are a reality that must be considered.
- Will students who have been expelled from one district be allowed to open enroll elsewhere? Existing state law may have some implications for this, but policymakers will need to consider when and under what circumstances a school might be allowed to refuse a student's open enrollment application, even if room is available for them.
- How will local taxpayers view this policy? Families of open enrollees don't normally pay school taxes in the district they now attend, which means that in effect, local taxpayers are more heavily subsidizing these students in comparison to students whose families reside there. It would be a good sign of a school's quality if many students from outside the district were clamoring to get in, but there's a point at which taxpayers may grow resistant, especially if district leaders want to increase tax rates.
These are complex issues and some people would look at this list and conclude that open enrollment just isn't worth the work it would take to address these risks and challenges. In fact, a participant sitting next to me threw up her hands at the end of the session and said, "All this just confirmed my worst fears about open enrollment!"
But I don't see it this way. I wrote recently about Andy Smarick's analysis of education policy through the prism of paradigms. If you accept that "differentiation and choice" is a superior model for education delivery, as opposed to the traditional "territorial exclusive franchise model," then you also understand that such a paradigm shift presents a totally different set of policy challenges. And you accept these challenges as the price of prioritizing parent choice and a pluralism of educational options over a system that prioritizes standardization and district control.
I think the potential positive impacts of open enrollment are worth taking on these new challenges, but I do urge us to pay close attention to these and other risks and unintended consequences as we're crafting a new policy. And I'm very grateful to ECS for the chance to learn from other states.
Equity and state autonomy. There was good discussion in a plenary session yesterday morning about the equity implications of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in that states now have considerably more leeway in how to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps. Will states really do so without federal pressure? One panelist even went so far as to evoke the ugly history of using "states' rights" to justify discriminatory practices to express his concern about this.
I can only speak for Kentucky, but I know the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky Board of Education have made addressing achievement gaps and raising achievement overall the highest concern in development of our ESSA plan. In our draft plan no school can achieve the top two performance levels if it has serious achievement gaps, regardless of how it is doing on other measures. And we are having hard conversations about how to set improvement targets that convey our sense of urgency on this matter.
I don't often directly invoke my religious views on education policy topics, but here I think Catholic Christian social teaching has a useful lens to offer and one that might appeal to non-Catholics and non-Christians as well. Tomes have been written on this by people far more expert than me, but in brief, Catholic social teaching rests on two equal pillars: subsidiarity and solidarity.
Subsidiarity is the principle that decision-making power should rest at the most local level possible and practical. This doesn't exclude making decisions at higher levels of authority, including in some cases a national level, but that generally we should prioritize the authority of the individuals, groups, and other entities closest to the problems we're trying to address. Solidarity, however, compels all decisions, regardless of who is making them, to prioritize concerns of equity, justice, and the dignity of individuals. Every policy should be questioned as to its implications for "the least of these."
Of course policy makers can easily disregard these principles, but for me this framework of subsidiarity and solidarity helps affirm the value of states as the key level of authority over education, while compelling an urgent focus on issues of equity and justice. Furthermore, I would just point out that the federal mandates under the old No Child Left Behind Act did not, in fact, bring greater equity or close achievement gaps, even if they did encourage a greater (and long overdue) focus on these issues. It's time, in my opinion, to once again let states take the lead in this regard (subsidiarity), with stakeholders holding state leaders accountable for ensuring every student has the chance to achieve (solidarity).
In my next post I'll reflect on some other important themes of the ECS National Forum, including career and technical education and school funding.
Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the perspectives of Western Kentucky University (where I am associate professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).