Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Most of Colorado’s open enrollment students are transferring from school districts with high test scores to districts with even higher scores. This is one of several interesting findings reported in a new study by political scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Deven Carlson, Lesley Lavery and John F. Witte examined open enrollment in Colorado and Minnesota by analyzing data from the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years. Their test-score related findings are consistent with research conducted over the past 20 years, which suggest that districts with high test scores attract more open enrollers. What’s new and different about this study (published in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis) is that researchers more closely examined the characteristics of the students’ home districts in two different states.
Also new: Using Geographic Information System software, researchers found that distance matters: Students in both states are more likely to transfer to districts closer to home. (The researchers state that “Virtual schools are undoubtedly an important topic of study, but are beyond the scope of this analysis.”)
Other results were mixed. Students in both states were less likely to leave high-spending districts. However, transfer students tended to move to districts that spent slightly less. Past studies suggest students are more likely to transfer to higher-spending districts but that test scores may be more strongly associated with student transfers. In Colorado, size also mattered: Students tended to transfer from smaller to bigger districts.
Past research indicates that demographics also play an important role. This can increase segregation because students tend to leave districts with higher percentages of low-income students and minorities.
The Wisconsin authors concluded that demographics were not a primary force driving interdistrict open enrollment:
“Any increase in segregation stemming from open enrollment is likely attributable to a desire by parents to increase the academic opportunities available to their children.”
However, they did find that “open enrollment may be causing greater segregation among social classes and racial groups in Colorado, but there is less evidence of such effects in Minnesota.”
This is consistent with the results of a 2009 study of the Denver metropolitan area published in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education. In that study, which actually uses more recent data from 2006-07, University of Texas researchers Jennifer Jennifer Jellison Holme and Meredith P. Richards found that “higher income students were far more likely to take advantage of interdistrict choice and to transfer to higher income school districts.” Additionally: “ On the whole, White students were more likely to transfer out of racially diverse districts into districts with higher proportions of White students.”
The impact of open enrollment is significant and growing because open enrollment is the most common form of choice in our country and our state. According to EdNews, 66,296 Colorado students (8 percent of all students) open enrolled this school year. The pool of open enrollers is now larger than all but two Colorado school districts.
The authors of the Wisconsin and Texas studies suggest several policy implications. The authors of both studies found that the most disadvantaged students were less likely to benefit from open enrollment in Colorado. Further, the Wisconsin authors noted that districts with low test scores were losing per-pupil funding as students transferred out, which potentially contributed to a downward spiral in which these districts would increasingly lack the resources needed to improve.
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