As the tectonic plates of education shift and grind beneath our feet, Wisconsin’s largest school choice program, Open Enrollment, continues to expand with little notice or controversy in the statewide education discourse. But considering current challenges and trends surrounding our schools, Open Enrollment provides important lessons about the future of education delivery in our state.
Since 1998, Wisconsin’s Open Enrollment program has permitted K4-12 students to attend public schools outside of their district of residence. Unlike the income qualified Parental (Private) School Choice programs, every student in the state is eligible for an Open Enrollment transfer. Parents apply for transfers for a variety of reasons and both their resident district and transfer district must approve the application, but there is no statewide limit on program size.
Last school year, 53,188 students – nearly 6 percent of Wisconsin students – attended a public school outside the district where they live. They brought nearly $290 million in state aid along with them: The resident district is required to transfer $6,639 per pupil to the enrollment district.
Impressively, in our era of nearly daily concern over school funding and competition, more and more Wisconsin families are choosing to enroll their kids in another district’s schools and send their state per pupil aid dollars across district lines. Since the 1998-99 school year, Open Enrollment participation has grown nearly 800 percent.
This surge in implementation provides three salient takeaways:
Wisconsin parents exercise school choice. The phrase “school choice” is a loaded term in our state – primarily identified with the 25-year old Parental Choice or “voucher” program in Milwaukee. However, at its core, “school choice” is about empowering all parents with high-quality educational options. Open Enrollment demonstrates a strong school choice culture statewide: Tens of thousands of Wisconsin families, regardless of geography and income, are exercising choice and selecting a school program they think will better fit their student(s). It’s important to note that approximately 20,000 more Wisconsin students utilize Open Enrollment than private school vouchers.
Funds follow the student. Just like Wisconsin’s Parental Choice (voucher) programs, funds follow the student to their enrollment district because the resident district is no longer responsible for their education. (Similarly, the statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, with about 2,500 students, is estimated to transfer $18.3 million from resident districts to participating private schools this year.) The general embrace of this underlying principle—funds follow the student—for Open Enrollment and Parental Choice will no doubt be a central argument for considering expanding course choice/options programs and Education Savings Accounts.
Parents relinquish direct governance. A common critique of Wisconsin’s Parental Choice programs, as well as independent charter schools, is that these schools are not directly accountable to voters or parents. This is mostly true – independent charter schools and private schools operate with their own governing boards (though they are responsible to their authorizers and/or accreditors). Yet, when a student open enrolls into a non-resident district, their parent(s) no longer have a direct, democratic check through school board elections in that district. However, the growth in Open Enrollment suggests that relinquishment of direct accountability is not a compelling barrier for the parents of the 53,188 students in the program statewide. You could say they’re too busy voting with their feet.
Open Enrollment’s successful implementation and growth over the last 20 years demonstrates that, when given the opportunity, Wisconsin parents will exercise their choice in schools and that legacy funding and governance mechanisms can adapt to meet parent and student preferences. In the coming years, these mindsets and flexibilities will be critical to adjusting our K4-12 systems in the face of dramatic demographic shifts, continued technological change and the resulting disruption to traditional education.