2023 has undeniably been a banner year for education freedom.
Today nine states have universal or near-universal school choice. In Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia, these sweeping policy changes have taken the shape of education savings accounts.
Indiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma have passed private school voucher programs, which will reach nearly all children in the coming years.
North Carolina is poised to be the tenth state to join the ranks once Democrat Governor Roy Cooper’s temporary blockage tactics of declaring a state of emergency end.
But education freedom is also about allowing parents to select the public school that will best serve their unique children. Yet, that is prohibited in the majority of communities in the country. Families with children in public schools are restricted to a specifically assigned school based on home address — even if another public school is a better fit. Removing that artificial barrier in order that there are “no more lines” in public education should be a priority.
In no other industry than K-12 public education are students largely restricted to a zip code assigned government service — not public parks, pools, libraries, or hospitals. As a result of this mandated assignment, important quality controls such as accountability for student learning and curriculum transparency do not exist. Students are at the mercy of whatever is offered at their residentially assigned school, regardless of whether it is a good fit for each individual child. And in some places, parents have even been jailed for enrolling their children in a public school outside of their neighborhood.
Families — as taxpayers funding public education — are understandably furious about this restriction. For families living in one of the 41 states where widespread school choice hasn’t become a reality and can’t afford private school tuition or aren’t able to homeschool their child, there is often no other school option other than the assigned school.
It’s no wonder that, according to an EdChoice national poll, 74% of parents and 70% of the general public support “no more lines” policies allowing parents options within the public system.
Within the public system, a practical policy solution is to allow open enrollment, where students can attend any public school regardless of home address or income level necessary to afford tuition or other educational expenses. Allowing the open use of taxpayer-funded government services should not be a revolutionary concept. Preschool and high education funding operate this way. It’s time K-12 education does too.
There are two major types of open enrollment within public schools — cross-district and within-district. These are referred to as inter- and intra-district. According to research from the Reason Foundation, today, only five states — Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, and Utah — have both mandated cross- and within-district open enrollment. Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin have only mandated cross-district open enrollment, while Georgia and Tennessee have only mandated within-district open enrollment.
When cross-district open enrollment policies are in place, families select school districts better aligned with their child’s needs. When within-district open enrollment policies are in place, families can select schools that are a better fit for their students for a variety of reasons, including academic offerings, social dynamics, or extracurricular programs.
Clearly, work must be done to expand educational options for students within the public system. Multiple states proposed new or expanded open enrollment policies during the 2023 legislative session, but more progress is warranted so families — not artificial lines — determine where their children attend school.
While some policymakers continue championing universal educational freedom in their states, they should also get behind policies that advance freedom for families to access any public school. Unrestricted public school access is a critical component of allowing all families to select the educational avenues that will best serve their unique child.
All states with universal or near-universal school choice should require unrestricted cross- and within-district public school open enrollment policies. Additionally, in states where the ruling elected lawmakers are hostile to private school vouchers and education savings accounts, due to deeply held ties with the powerful teachers unions, public school open enrollment policies should be strategically advanced by showing these groups that it can be a key avenue to encouraging families to remain within the public education system.