Open Enrollment Under Scrutiny in Oregon School District

Published April 1, 2008

Eugene, Oregon’s 4J school district is considering retooling its decades-old open-enrollment policy because schools there are becoming socioeconomically segregated.

District officials say that’s not good and it’s their job to ensure the best educational environment by addressing the segregation. School choice experts say open enrollment makes schools better by creating healthy competition, and parents deserve to keep the option of placing kids where they want.

A report released February 8 by 4J Superintendent George Russell said a declining number of young families in the community, coupled with parents’ ability to choose the schools their kids attend, has contributed to an imbalance in school populations throughout the district. A large number of students–approximately 32 percent–do not attend their neighborhood schools but instead use the district’s open-enrollment policy to transfer to an alternative school or another neighborhood school.

The report recommends schools cap open-enrollment transfers, to force student enrollments to even out among area schools.

“We have lost approximately 2,000 students since 1981, and over 4,000 students since 1969,” Russell wrote in the report. “Declining enrollment is not distributed evenly across the district, and affects some schools and regions disparately.”

Losing Students

Kelly McIver, 4J’s communications coordinator, said the community is aging, property values are high, and young families simply aren’t moving in.

“That makes the transfer process sting for those losing students,” McIver said. “Some schools are feasting and some are starving.”

The impact is especially significant in schools left with high percentages of low-income students.

“The reason that poverty levels are a problem is that it comes to bear on academic performance,” McIver explained. “When you get a tipping point–where more than half the kids are on free or reduced[-price] lunch–the academic performance of all students suffers. When you stay below that number, all students do better.”

Common Problem

Allowing people to choose creates self-segregation, McIver said. “It amplifies socioeconomic differences and puts a burden on schools when they aren’t handling the challenges equally.”

Matt Wingard, director of the school choice project at the Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland think tank, said it is common for school boards to try to engineer school populations to meet all sorts of cultural and political goals at the expense of parental choice.

“People are self-selecting these schools–that’s a good thing,” Wingard said. “Once people have choices, they sometimes make choices that the certified ‘smart’ people don’t like.”

If parents were the ones with the concerns, it would be a different story, Wingard said. But in this case it is the school board that’s worried–not the parents.

Chicken or Egg?

McIver said the district is trying to find a balance, allowing choice with limits–such as enrollment caps–but ensuring no one school has such a high percentage of kids with intensive needs that all students suffer.

“We staff by enrollment–the more kids there are, the more teachers that can be hired and the more options,” McIver said. “That means more music, more art, more P.E. When you have very few students, they are not getting the same academic chance.”

While the competition among schools created by parental choice can lead to school improvement, McIver isn’t convinced it tells the whole story.

“When a school has a good reputation, does it draw more kids because it’s good or is it good because there are more kids?” McIver asked.

Searching for Answers

Regardless, McIver noted, district officials are not saying parental choice is a bad thing.

“Generally parents who do make choices or choose alternatives are more involved with their child’s education, and it creates a better base of kids,” McIver said. “If there was somehow money to provide full program staffing regardless of enrollment, then it wouldn’t be an issue. They’d all be getting the same. But that isn’t the way it is.”

Wendy Cloyd ([email protected]) writes from Alaska.