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Open enrollment for Kansas schools raises concerns about equity, representation and funding, local leaders say

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Open enrollment in Kansas public schools will worsen existing inequities and funding issues as well as diminish the importance of voters’ representation on local school boards, some local leaders say. 

A provision allowing for open enrollment passed as part of a school funding bill in late April. Proponents have touted the bill because they say it allows flexibility for students by allowing them to freely transfer into districts where they do not reside. The provision, labeled by supporters as a move that creates more opportunities for students, will go into effect starting in the 2024-25 school year.

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Keith Davenport is a Democratic candidate for Kansas House District 43, which straddles the Johnson County line and includes a small portion of southeastern Douglas County. He has made this issue a central part of his campaign, and he said the Legislature has the responsibility to create an effective and equitable public school system for the state — and open enrollment is a failure to that responsibility.

“It will be beneficial for a small number of Kansas families — those families with the resources to travel each morning and afternoon to take their kids to another school district — but the majority of Kansans will be left behind,” Davenport said. 

How it works

Open enrollment will require school boards to first set a total capacity for their districts and to analyze how much of that capacity is currently filled with resident students. That must be determined by Jan. 1, 2024.

Shannon Kimball

This requirement instantly spurred concerns for Lawrence school board President Shannon Kimball. Lawrence has a high volume of students who both enter and exit the district each year, making it difficult to pinpoint the total number of students, Kimball said. It’s even more difficult to pinpoint how many students will be in a given building. 

Currently, students may apply to transfer into districts where they don’t live, but districts have fairly broad discretion to deny those requests. When open enrollment goes into effect, districts will be required to accept non-resident student transfers until they reach capacity. If more non-resident students apply than the district can accept, districts must select students through a lottery process. 

Original proponents of the provision said this open enrollment system would allow students who feel their needs are not being met to seek a school district that they feel better fulfills their educational goals.

“Allowing students to attend the school that best meets their individual and diverse needs should be of the utmost priority,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, the Augusta Republican who chairs the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget. “Not every school is a good fit for every child. Arbitrary boundaries should not dictate opportunity.”

Threat to local control

On the other hand, Kimball said the bill could create fissures in local democracy and the representation of school boards.

“It infringes on local control of districts and school boards in Kansas,” Kimball said. “The state constitution provides control over the operation of schools to local school boards and this kind of policy provision in state law infringes upon those rights of school boards under the constitution to exercise that local control.” 

As the correlation between residency and school district attendance changes, the school board’s representative form of government may become less valuable to communities.

Keith Davenport

Davenport said that families who send their children to out-of-district schools will have no vote on the school board that will be making decisions for their children.

“Likewise, they will be less vested in the election of good school board members for their home district,” he said. “On the backside, this will lead to less accountability for the school boards that are elected. This open enrollment policy literally weakens democracy in Kansas.”

But Williams disagrees. She argued that parents are rarely concerned with who sits on the school board, but rather with the quality of education they see directly in their students.

“If a parent believes a local board best represents their child and their child is thriving in the family’s resident district — the child would have no desire to move districts,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.”

Equity, funding concerns

Kimball is also concerned about the way the bill affects equity in Kansas public education, she said. She said one concern she has heard is that this could also exacerbate both racial and socio-economic segregation.

“Students who transfer to a new district under this legislation can come into the district, but the district that they’re transferring into has no obligation to provide transportation to that student,” Kimball said. “So, if you think about what kind of student is going to have the capacity to take advantage of the provisions in this bill — it’s families with means.” 

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But proponents argue that the open enrollment provision is still the best option for student equity. For students who live in lower-resource districts, it may be difficult to find affordable housing in districts they find more desirable; open enrollment solves that issue by allowing them to seek the education they desire while still living in more affordable communities, they say.

Kristey Williams

“Equity is allowing opportunities for all students regardless of diverse challenges,” Williams said. “There is no need to pre-judge what parents of any economic status will choose to do regarding enrollment — especially when significant circumstances can, and do, arise. Underestimating parents, regardless of income status, would be a mistake.”

Another concern may arise after students transfer to non-resident districts: Because state per-pupil funding uses a district’s previous year’s enrollment numbers, funding could lag behind the change in enrollment numbers resulting from transfers. 

This could leave districts that find themselves with an increase in students — most likely districts with more resources, such as Olathe and Blue Valley — to look at increasing the amount of funds that come into the school locally based on property taxes from their community or to dig into their reserve funds.

“With this policy, the homeowners of Lawrence will still be funding the Lawrence school district, but not necessarily the children who live in Lawrence,” Davenport said. “This is poor tax policy.”

Kimball said the Lawrence school district doesn’t have the resources to suddenly serve an influx of students from outside the district. Due to USD 497’s budget deficit and a reserve fund that Kimball described as “crisis level,” a massive increase in students without funding could be detrimental to the district.

While initially looking over the bill, Kimball said there were multiple steps of the process that were unclear, such as exactly how school boards are supposed to calculate capacity and which schools non-resident students should be assigned to. She said she believes the bill will overwhelm some people due to the lack of capacity most school districts face currently and the unclear instructions for local school boards.

Although the demand might be high, school districts will only be able to endure so much change under the current proposal and with their current capacity.

“It’s gonna be a tricky situation,” she said. “In the end what I think is that there will be a lot of people disappointed in thinking that this legislation does more than it actually will.”

Tied to funding bill

The bill included more than a dozen policies including full funding of schools, but the addition of an open enrollment provision led many to vote no, including every Democrat in the House. The final vote in the House was 75-45 in favor of the bill.

“It’s inappropriate, in my view, for the Legislature to put policy positions like this into the funding bill,” Kimball said. “It’s bad public policy.”

Supporters of the bill advocated that funding must come with policy provisions such as open enrollment.

“Is it better to provide funding without any accountability, without any transparency, without any outcomes of expectations,” Williams asked the Legislature during a speech minutes before the house voted on the bill on April 28, “or are you a better steward when you do ask for transparency and ask the tough questions? The process is improved by including policies that help kids achieve.”

This school year, school boards will begin to analyze how they will set capacity for their districts and implement the open enrollment procedure. 

Even a year before the bill will go into effect, some are already sounding the alarm.

Note: Davenport’s opponent in the Nov. 8 general election is William Sutton, incumbent and Republican candidate for District 43. Sutton was marked as absent and not voting on the bill. He did not respond to emails seeking comment for this article.

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of this work for the Times here.

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