New Colorado Report Reveals Public School Open Enrollment Trends

Colorado has been a leader in public school choice for decades. Legislative bills to allow students to cross neighborhood school zones and school district boundaries were first introduced in the late 1980s. Legislation passed in 1990 and 1994 to open the doors to a new public school choice frontier.

Ready Colorado, an education reform organization, recently published a first-of-its-kind report about Colorado’s public school open enrollment system. Open Doors, Open Districts: School Choice in Colorado’s Traditional Public Schools analyzes enrollment trends, barriers to choice, and makes policy recommendations to create a more family-friendly process.

Putting aside open enrollment into charter public schools and online public schools, the researchers found that approximately 145,000 Colorado public school students, or 16 percent, choice into other traditional public schools, within and outside of their district boundaries. The data shows that this is the largest form of school choice in Colorado.  There are a number of reasons why parents enroll their children in schools outside their neighborhood, but the primary reason is based on a school’s student performance. Parents want their children to attend the best schools.

Because each school district sets its own open enrollment process, it can be confusing for families who are school shopping. In fact, the procedures can be dramatically different among districts and therefore could cause a family much distress to learn they missed a deadline or that their already enrolled child in the school of their choice may not be guaranteed for enrollment the next year. The Ready Colorado report discusses several of the challenges families face.

There is a fine balance between policies that create a more standard open enrollment process but still provide school districts the flexibility they need to provide space for neighborhood children or staffing requirements. Unfortunately, the resistance to change can be the result of not wanting to bother with a modification of a traditional practice or an unwillingness to serve students who “don’t look like” the rest of the neighborhood. Yes, that does happen in Colorado. But we also have districts that have helped to nurture a culture of parental public school choice.

Several years ago, school districts killed legislation that would have required family-friendly information about open enrollment be posted on district websites. The lobbyist claimed it was another unfunded mandate. Also, that it was an Independence Institute bill, therefore it should die. However, a resolution, based on the language of the bill, did pass and many school districts improved their Internet communication about open enrollment.

Most states don’t allow the level of public school choice Colorado families enjoy. Parents need to be educated about the opportunity to choose a public school. Eleven years ago this month the Independence Institute launched the School Choice for Kids website in both English and Spanish as a helpful tool to select a school and to learn about how to maneuver through the school open enrollment process.

The publication of Open Doors, Open Districts should re-open the conversation about how school districts can better serve students with policies that encourage parents to choose the school that best meets the need of their children.