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Students gain mobility.

Byline: The Register-Guard

There's a sleeper in the package of education-related bills that has emerged from the Oregon Legislature - House Bill 3681, which would allow students to enroll in any public school district that has space for them. Such a form of open enrollment has long been favored by school-choice advocates, who believe district boundaries should not trap students in failing schools. The effects of interdistrict enrollment on school quality are unproven, but HB 3681 could bring profound changes to many Oregon school districts and communities, including some in Lane County.

School district boundaries in Oregon have long been all but impermeable - with a few exceptions, students attend schools in the districts where their families reside. A family intent on having its children go to a particular public school must generally buy or rent a primary residence within that school's district. Some districts, notably the Eugene School District, have open enrollment among their own schools, but students in Pleasant Hill usually can't attend schools in Eugene or vice versa.

HB 3681 would end that restriction. Students whose families live within a school district would have preference for enrollment, but any district with the capacity to absorb additional students could accept them, regardless of where they live. Students' school districts of residence would not be able to withhold permission for transfers. If more students sought to enroll in a particular district than could be accommodated, admission would be by lottery. Siblings of students already enrolled in a school district would go to the head of the line.

The volume of transfers that would occur under such a policy is unknown, but even relatively minor shifts in enrollment could have far-reaching consequences. In some states with interdistrict enrollment, the tendency has been for students in urban districts to move to suburban schools. In Lane County, the shift could be in the opposite direction, with the broad curricula of the Eugene-Springfield area's larger school districts drawing students from smaller rural districts.

The immediate effect would be financial. State school funding is distributed on a per-pupil basis, so money would follow students as they moved from one district to another. Declining enrollment in the Eugene School District, in particular, has been a powerful contributor to the district's budgetary problems and its need to close schools - an influx of students from outside the district would relieve that pressure. If such an influx were to occur, however, the Eugene district would in effect be exporting its enrollment problem to its neighbors.

Longer-term effects might also be expected. Families taking advantage of interdistrict enrollments would no longer have a stake in the school districts where they live - they'd have little incentive, for instance, to support property tax increases for their local schools. The result could be a further weakening of educational quality in school districts that lose enrollment to neighboring districts.

Other results might include the emergence of student recruiting efforts by school districts - not only to gain more per-pupil funding, but also to attract star athletes or scholars. Residential patterns and real estate values could be affected if families could live in low-tax areas and send their children to schools in high-tax districts. School districts might resort to marketing programs to retain and boost enrollment.

There are constraints on student mobility, particularly transportation. Even with HB 3681, it's likely that most students would continue to attend school in their home district. But the number of transfers would be large enough in some areas, probably including Lane County, to have far-reaching consequences, with winners and losers among school districts and communities. These effects have not been extensively discussed or analyzed - but they're coming, whether Oregon is ready or not.
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Title Annotation:Editorials and Letters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 26, 2011
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