Students benefit from expanded open enrollment


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Open enrollment is common in Iowa’s schools, according to the Iowa Department of Education’s Annual Condition of Education Report 2010; it is chosen by almost 25,000 students statewide. The most students choosing open enrollment are in the largest and the smallest districts.

Under open enrollment, state education money follows the student. For the 2010-11 school year, it is $5,768 per student, plus textbook, special education, and transportation money. For students enrolled in accredited nonpublic schools, textbook and transportation money already follows them. That the money follows the student is a well-established, legal policy.

There are 182 accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa. These schools follow the exact same educational requirements as the public schools, including Iowa Core Curriculum, discrimination, cultural awareness, wellness, bullying, and teacher-certification laws. Accredited nonpublic schools award diplomas. The state has determined that these schools are legally acceptable options.

Student achievement has flat-lined, and only 87 percent graduate from high school. Reading, writing, and math scores for low-income and minority students have increased only slightly, across all grade levels; there is still a tremendous disparity. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, 80 percent of all fourth-grade Iowan students were “proficient” in 2009-10.

Only 63 percent of Latino and 55 percent of African-American students were proficient, and only 67 percent of low-income students were proficient. Their educational needs are not being met.

Expanded open enrollment works in Florida. Latino students are scoring higher on standardized tests than the average of all students in Oklahoma. In 1998, Florida Latino students were two grade levels below the Oklahoma average. After expanded open enrollment, by 2009, they were almost a grade ahead.

In comparison Florida, Iowa — which considers itself an educational leader — is failing minority and low-income students. These students must be allowed to take advantage of every educational option; unfortunately, they are least likely to be able to afford nonpublic-school tuition.

Expanded open enrollment allows the money to follow the student to any accredited school, including nonpublic schools. These schools are fully accredited; we need to use them.

One objection is that losing the money would harm public schools. The solution is to set limits on the amount of the state funding available. For example, 90 percent of the $5,768 state core funding is $5,191 for 2010-11. No more than this amount could be transferred to an accredited nonpublic school, instead of the full $5,768. And no more than 90 percent of the tuition would be covered. For example, if tuition were $5,200 per year, 90 percent would be $4,680. That amount is transferred instead of the $5,768 that would have been transferred under open enrollment to a public district. The originating district would retain $1,088. If tuition were higher, a maximum of 90 percent of the state core funding or $5,191 would be transferred, leaving a minimum of $577 with the originating district. Low-income parents could use the Iowa Tuition Scholarship program for additional help.

Students already have the right to open enrollment in the public system. The Legislature needs to expand that to any accredited school. Expanded open enrollment would provide real educational opportunity to struggling students. The week of Jan. 23-29 is National School Choice Week. Parents should insist that Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Legislature address the educational needs of our children by making full use of all accredited schools.

Deborah Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.

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