Understanding Inter-District K-12 Open Enrollment Policies

The bad news: Using district lines to determine where a child goes to school is a 200-year-old mistake that has resulted in racial and socioeconomic segregation in U.S. public schools.

The good news: Many states have created open enrollment laws that break down those district lines and allow kids to attend public schools outside their ZIP Code-assigned schools.

To learn more about inter-district open enrollment policies and how they can affect students and school leaders, EdChoice partnered with Hanover Research to conduct a series of research projects. Author Susan Pendergrass shares the findings in her capstone piece—Breaking Down Public School District Lines.

Flip through for quick key findings and recommendations for state lawmakers.

What’s Inside

There are two types of open enrollment policies. 

Intra-district allows kids to attend schools within their assigned district that may not necessarily be their assigned school. 

Inter-district allows kids to attend schools outside their assigned school and district. (Think interstate, it’s a road helping you cross state lines.) 

Public school enrollment in the U.S. has been steadily drifting away from ASSIGNED public schools. Every state handles these types of school choice options differently. 

Some states began allowing families to choose schools through open enrollment in the late 1980s, and charter schools—which are publicly funded schools that are privately run with slightly less red tape than traditional schools—began opening in the early 1990s. 

These options, along with existing public magnet schools—which are like publicly funded private schools that specialize in one area like arts or medical sciences etc.—and virtual public schools now enroll more than one in 10 public school students.

Families and students most often choose a public school outside their district because of the academic programming and school culture. 

Participants in the study highlight the importance of giving students a sense of agency and ownership over their own educational path. Other common reasons for open enrollment transfers include: 

  • School safety 
  • District proximity to parents’ work, home or day care 
  • Athletic programs 
  • Various school climate aspects 

School district administrators who were interviewed for this project feel competitive pressure from open enrollment and often referenced the need to “retain market share” by attracting students from nearby counties (e.g., from other public school districts, charter schools, private schools).

Participants from Hanover’s qualitative study explain the delicate balance districts must strike between accepting new out-of-district transfers and managing intra-district school choice transfers. Districts regulate inter- and intra-district enrollment mainly based on classroom capacity (i.e., available seats), and they will often use a lottery system that prioritizes certain tiers of applicants, such as in-district residency, on-site school employment, scholarship opportunities or sibling preference. 

From the perspective of students: Open enrollment policies should make it easy for those who wish to transfer to do so.

So how should policymakers improve open enrollment policies?

Transportation is one of the greatest barriers for open enrollment students, especially those from low-income families. None of the state policies analyzed mandate that receiving districts provide transportation to open enrolled students. Instead, it is the responsibility of the parent/guardian.

State policies could reimburse parents for transporting their own children, as is done in Wisconsin. Or establishing pick up and drop off “kiss and ride” locations that could be shared across multiple districts might improve families’ transportation options. 

All open enrollment policies should be mandatory. States with voluntary open enrollment tend to struggle the most, causing more issues of equity and access.For example, both Ohio and Indiana districts have a documented history and public perception of “cherry-picking” students they accept to maintain a high-achieving student body.

Open enrollment should be offered to all students without conditions. A child’s disability, past grades or test scores shouldn’t prevent them from accessing the services and programs available in other districts through open enrollment. Make funding flexible, so district schools receive funding set aside for the open enrollment students who come to their schools. If states are going to make “capacity” a restriction districts can use to deny open enrollment students, then districts must be mandated and held accountable for transparently reporting their open seats.


Want to learn more about open enrollment in America? Visit www.edchioce.org/BreakingDownDistrictLines.

To share your thoughts with our research team, email research@edchoice.org.