School choice victories made waves this year, with states like Arkansas, Utah, and Iowa adopting expansive choice programs that pay for private-school tuition and other educational expenses.
But what flew under many people’s radar is another form of choice that also achieved impressive gains, with four states adopting open enrollment policies that enshrine the right for students to attend any public school that has an available seat.
Unlike legislation to create private school choice programs, which faced stiff opposition from Democrats, these open enrollment bills garnered noteworthy bipartisan support. In total, nearly 95% of Republican and 82% of Democratic votes across four red states—Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia—were cast in favor of public school choice. West Virginia’s House Bill 2596 passed unanimously in both of the state’s legislative chambers. Only in North Dakota did a majority of Democrats in either chamber vote against the measure.
Open Enrollment Vote Count by Political Affiliation
|Idaho (SB 1125)||57||0||28||0||6||5||7||0|
|Montana (HB 203)||68||0||34||0||31||1||16||0|
|North Dakota (HB 1376)||77||4||24||19||3||9||1||3|
|West Virginia (HB 2596)||87||0||29||0||12||0||5||0|
Note: Arkansas also improved its open enrollment law, but its bill was part of an extensive package of reforms including private school choice and teacher pay. All tallies reflect initial votes in each respective legislative chamber.
But most of the recent momentum for open enrollment has been in red states with Republican governors and legislatures. For all kids to have unfettered access to public schools—34 states still allow school districts to discriminate against students based solely on where they live—Democratic policymakers in blue and purple states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina must lead the way. There’s a strong case to be made for Democrats to do exactly that.
First, open enrollment is a key step toward making public schools available to all-comers, a progressive value that most states fail to uphold. Research shows that many schools remain racially segregated decades after Brown v. Board of Education. For instance, a Government Accountability Office report found that in 2020–21, more than one-third of students attended schools where at least 75% of students were a single race or ethnicity. The biggest driver of persistent segregation is school-district boundaries, including demographic trends shaped by racist government policies like redlining and segregated public housing.
As a result, Black and Hispanic students are often concentrated in high-poverty schools, which studies have found to be less effective in raising student achievement than lower-poverty schools on average. “Every moderately or highly segregated district has large racial achievement gaps,” according to Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford University.
School district policies often make it difficult for these students to transfer to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Whether it’s public schools refusing to accept transfer students entirely or charging families transfer tuition—New York’s Rye Brook School District charges up to $21,500 per transfer student for its public schools—the system leaves many students without options. While open enrollment alone can neither eliminate segregation nor achievement gaps, it’s an immediate remedy for students who are zoned to underperforming public schools.
Open enrollment can also help strengthen public schools, another key aim for progressives. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, public-school enrollment nationwide has fallen by more than 1.2 million students compared to pre-pandemic levels. Research shows that parents want more agency over their children’s K–12 experiences and are increasingly choosing private schools or homeschooling. Giving families significantly more options within the public education system could help mitigate enrollment declines across many school districts.
Some districts will lose students to open enrollment, but this can be a good thing: A study by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that school districts that lost students to open enrollment responded by engaging their communities and taking steps to improve their instructional offerings, with some achieving “significant drops in the number of students transferring out.” The study also reported that school districts with the greatest enrollment declines improved at a faster pace than a comparison group of districts with similar demographics, but without any students transferring out through the program. These results aren’t causal, but they should allay fears that public school choice will leave some students behind.
Finally, progressives should embrace open enrollment because it’s good for students. Studies of states like Colorado, Wisconsin, and Minnesota show that students tend to transfer to higher-performing school districts when given the opportunity. Research also suggests that they use open enrollment for diverse reasons, such as to escape bullying or to access specialized instructional approaches. Some studies show that disadvantaged students use open enrollment at lower rates, suggesting that they may face barriers to doing so. Yet other studies find that Black students are more likely than their peers to participate and that good policies such as transparency requirements and free transportation, can improve access for low-income students.
At a time of deep political divisions, open enrollment holds immense promise as a bipartisan policy to improve public education that lawmakers should rally behind. With a Morning Consult opinion poll showing 70% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats supporting open enrollment, all states should move swiftly to adopt public school choice. Although Democrats and teachers’ unions often fear that school choice will undermine public schools, open enrollment can clearly make public schools stronger. Democrats in a few red states have shown that it’s possible to do what’s best for kids. Those in blue and purple states should step up next.
Aaron Smith is the director of education policy at Reason Foundation.