North Carolina Legislature to Study Open Enrollment

Published May 21, 2014

A North Carolina bill that would let students enroll in any school district in the state was deferred to a study committee instead of brought forth for a vote.

The chairman of the subcommittee that pushed the proposal, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Concord), has supported expanding charter schools, and the open-enrollment bill would have removed boundaries between charter and traditional public schools.

“For the short term, this isn’t going to be on the table,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation. “We’re dealing with various budget issues right now, and I don’t think there’s much of an appetite for battling over a bill like this.”

Open enrollment allows students to enroll in any school district they can transport themselves to in the state, rather than requiring them to attend geographically assigned public schools. Twenty-one states have open-enrollment policies, according to the Education Commission of the States, but sometimes these require both the sending and receiving school district to agree to the transfer, reducing the likelihood students can exercise this option.

More Explanation Necessary
“There is growing support for open enrollment,” said Robert Luebke, a senior policy analyst at the Civitas Institute. “However, in order to get over the current hump, open enrollment advocates must be able to articulate why parents should enjoy these options, what benefits the policies bring, and how open enrollment will impact school finances.”

Though the bill considers various ways to lower boundaries between districts, home schools and charter schools, articulation on several points was wanting, he said.

“I think the real issue was there were simply too many unknowns to really address the tropic during the short session,” Luebke said. 

Financing details, eligibility, transportation, and whether schools can refuse transfers must be addressed further, Luebke said.

North Carolina Association of School Administrators Executive Director Katherine Joyce voiced similar concerns.

“The proposed legislation ensures that our working families and less-privileged students will be unable to take advantage of school choice because it neglects the issue of transportation,” she said. “Those families without the means to transport their children are left with limited options, which will result in a less diverse school population in regards to student ethnicity and socioeconomic demographics.”

‘Dire Consequences’ Forecast
Open enrollment doesn’t benefit all students, said Denise Watts, a superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools. Some barriers for especially poor families include work schedules, limited public transportation, and not owning a car, she said.

“This bill will certainly create options for more kids whose families already have the means and savvy to exercise options, but it has dire consequences for the families who don’t,” she said. “We will only continue to leave behind the same kids trapped in the same schools that we deem underperforming.… Luck should never be the deciding factor in ensuring every child obtains a quality education.”

Luebke, however, notes open enrollment offers more opportunities for families to choose schools than they currently have, rather than letting residence force kids to attend low-performing schools.

Future Possibilities
Two large school districts, Cumberland and Winston-Salem counties, have open enrollment plans inside their attendance areas that have been fairly successful, Stoops said. These allow kids to choose public schools within their assigned school districts.

“In the long term, there is a possibility that some form of open enrollment or perhaps collaboration between home schools and district schools or district schools and charter schools is a possibility,” Stoops said. “I don’t think we’re going to see large-scale open enrollment that will allow kids to cross school boundaries, just because of the bureaucratic difficulties and the well-funded resistance to such a plan from teachers unions and school advocacy groups.”

Luebke said he thinks the bill will surface again in spring 2015.

“I expect the education community will continue to fight many of the proposals and seek provisions to either limit the number of transfers or control the decisions about transferring,” Luebke said. “Who will win that battle is a question that hasn’t been answered yet.”


Image by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers