Extend open enrollment.
Byline: The Register-Guard
Conducting an experiment is of little use without a plan to monitor the results. Oregon has been experimenting with open enrollment, allowing students to attend public school in any district that will accept them since 2012, but no one really knows what the consequences have been. The open enrollment law sunsets next year, and the Legislature should extend it with orders that the state Department of Education study the results.
Until the Legislature approved the open enrollment law in 2011, attending an out-of-district school required paying tuition, or could be arranged only with the consent of both school districts involved. School districts generally made it difficult to attend an out-of-district school - state funds follow the student, and each departure meant a loss of revenue.
Yet students and their families can have any number of reasons for wishing to attend school in a district other than the one where they live. A neighboring district may have academic programs that the home district lacks. A family may have moved, but still wants its children to go to school with friends in their old district. A parent may find transportation and after-school activities easier to arrange at a school near where she works, rather than the one near where she lives.
Whatever their reasons, Oregon's public school system ought to do what it can to accommodate students and families that want to switch districts - the system, after all, exists to serve the public, rather than the other way around.
There was, however, one reason for apprehension when the open enrollment experiment began. It seemed possible that small school districts would be disproportionately affected, and not for the better. Some are already having trouble offering a comprehensive academic program, and losing a significant percentage of their students to neighboring districts presented the risk of pushing them into a death spiral of falling enrollment and declining state support.
That hasn't happened. All 16 Lane County school districts have embraced open enrollment. So far, the shifts in enrollment have been slight - it appears that most students and their families prefer schools in their home communities.
It looks as though open enrollment is providing a significant benefit to a relatively small number of students, without being disruptive to school districts. For that reason, the Legislature should extend the open enrollment law beyond its 2017 sunset date - and it should act in the current session, so that families will have time to make plans for the 2016-17 school year.
But there has been no statewide analysis of the effects of open enrollment. While the anecdotal evidence from individual school districts suggests that the problems are few, it's possible that districts somewhere in Oregon have suffered financially, or that there have been other unexamined consequences. In renewing the open enrollment law, the Legislature should also call for a report on the progress of the experiment, so that any unwanted repercussions can be addressed and any necessary improvements can be made.