Friday, April 1, 2011

Fix Open Enrollment or Abolish It?

California’s Parent Trigger law has received a lot of media attention lately. However, this is not the only new rule that increases parents’ control over their children’s school. Last year, the California state legislature fast tracked through an Open Enrollment law that would allow students from the state’s lowest performing schools to transfer to a better school, even one outside their home district. Today John Fensterwald - Educated Guess wrote about this new rule in a blog posting, “Fixing Open Enrollment,” arguing that it is basically a good idea that was poorly planned and executed.

One of his criticisms is that there are too many exemptions. For example, the law excludes charter schools and limits Open Enrollment to only 10% of the schools in any district. As a result, some schools are being punished, despite having made test score gains, because they were the lowest performing school in an otherwise high performing district. According to Fensterwald, an amended version of the law, AB 47, would exempt schools with an API score above 700, as well as schools whose API scores increased by at least 50 points. AB 47 also requires that charter schools be included on the list.

Fensterwald argues that Open Enrollment can be a liberator for families trapped in low-achieving districts. However, parents must first succeed in finding and getting their children into a higher achieving school AND have the ability to get their child to that school every day. This will preclude many low income children who rely on public transit to get to school and anyone else who lives too far away from a “better” school. Furthermore, lower income, immigrant and minority families are less likely to have the time, know-how and self-confidence to play the system in the first place. Getting a transfer requires paper work and follow up, and sometimes also requires in-person meetings, appeals, and pestering.

Open Enrollment already exists within many districts in California. One consequence has been a flight of higher achieving and higher income students to the “better” schools within the district and, consequently, a concentrating of lower performing kids in the “bad” schools. San Francisco Unified, for example, has an Apartheid-like system with most of the higher performing schools on the west side, and the overwhelming bulk of lower performing schools on the east side.
The higher performing schools tend to be the most crowded and have the longest waiting lists.

It is also absolutely essential to understand that “good” and “bad” schools and districts are measures of familial wealth, and do not necessarily say anything about the quality of the teachers or academic programs. Schools and districts that high concentrations of poverty tend to have lower test scores. All that Open Enrollment schemes do is allow families to move their children to schools with wealthier students. They do not necessarily get better teachers or a better quality education. Thus, contrary to Fensterwald’s assertion, Open Enrollment may not liberate parents from anything more than the knowledge that their child is picking up nasty habits from those rabble kids on the other side of the tracks.


  1. I'm probably one of the few that actually used open enrollment to get my youngest into a lower performing school district. I wanted him to attend the school district where I taught because I strongly believe that this is something teachers should do.

  2. I fully support open enrollment. In my opinion, it allows children to go to a better school. If you were a child who wanted a better life wouldn't you want open enrollment. I would. I also disagree with your comment about how immigrant families might not have the 'know how' to play the system. Anyone might not have the know how. I believe that even if the odds aren't in their favor they still have a chance. And a poor chance is better than none. There are some flaws in open enrollment but overall I believe it is a good thing, and I would vote for it.

  3. Of course, who doesn't want their child in a good school? However, as I mentioned, it is not so clear cut what a "better" school is. First, high test scores only tell us that the school has relatively low levels of poverty, and virtually nothing about the quality of the teachers.

    You are correct that "anyone" could lack the know-how to work the system. However, wealthier families are more likely to have the past experience, self-confidence and sense of entitlement necessary to work the system effectively. This gives them an unfair edge and increases the existing trend of higher performing students fleeing the lower performing schools and further spiraling their test scores downward.

    Long story short: The problem isn't that kids are forced to stay in bad schools or even that we have a lot of bad schools. Under NCLB, virtually all of California's schools will be "failing" by 2014 (See "8 Delusions About Education," and "No Capitalist Left Behind" in this blog, from Oct-Nov 2010). The real problem is that we have large numbers of children living in poverty who come to school hungry, sick, and academically and socially ill-prepared for school. If we fix this problem, we will see a sharp decline in "bad" schools.

  4. Thanks, Christal.

    I'm so glad someone said this!

    There are some excellent teachers, programs and even schools among the "low-performing" ones. Unfortunately, for parents who aren't teachers or who don't have an insider's perspective, test scores often become the most important indicator of school quality.