It seems a proposed bill for open enrollment in N.C. public schools was inspired by – and perhaps copied from – draft legislation from a national conservative group. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus is the chairman of the subcommittee that crafted the bill, and although he says he’s not a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the language in Hartsell’s bill is very similar to a bill on ALEC’s web site. If this were a term paper, Hartsell might be headed to the principal’s office.
The idea behind the legislation is school choice, a concept ALEC and its favorite state legislators have supported in varying ways, including school vouchers. Much of ALEC’s agenda would ultimately weaken public education, but the group’s link to this proposed bill shouldn’t be enough to reject or embrace the concept. N.C. lawmakers should dig deeper into what the bill does and doesn’t accomplish.
An open enrollment law would allow parents to request a spot in any school in their home district or any of the state’s other districts. School districts could deny those requests for only a few reasons, the big one being lack of space.
The bill, however, is alarmingly vague, and N.C. school administrators are unsure how they would manage the transfers, including the financial implications of gaining or losing hundreds of students. Another unanswered question: What are the guidelines for a school being able to say it doesn’t have room for new students? The bill offers little help there, too.
(A side issue: Some officials and parents already are wondering if open enrollment would result in schools recruiting athletes and assembling “super teams.” But states with open enrollment have stamped out that temptation by keeping on the books playing restrictions for athletes who don’t live in a school’s district.)
The biggest question: Does open enrollment work? More than 20 states offer at least some students movement between districts, and supporters say it allows families in struggling, low-income schools to level the academic playing field with better opportunities. That also theoretically increases competition between schools and districts, motivating them to improve.
But studies show the families that benefit aren’t the ones supporters say they’re helping. In Colorado and Minnesota, which in 1988 was the first state to try open enrollment, research shows that most transferring students were whites leaving diverse districts for whiter, higher performing districts. In Arizona, research shows that many parents in struggling schools tend not to take advantage of enrollment choice.
The result: Schools and districts become even more segregated, and struggling schools lose the higher performing students they need most. That’s not a healthy outcome for public education. Which might be exactly what ALEC has in mind. At the least, we hope lawmakers study the impact of open enrollment – along with how other states have handled the mechanics of it – before opening the gates with a rushed and incomplete bill.
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