Is Montana’s Open Enrollment Policy ‘Good Enough’?
By Trish Schreiber
School choice is essential for improving educational outcomes for students, and open enrollment is a significant part of that choice spectrum. While Montana has made strides in this area, it lags behind neighbors like Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, all of which boast more expansive open enrollment policies and flourishing charter school sectors.
Open Enrollment falls into two categories: intra-district (choice within the same district) and inter-district (choice across district lines). Predictably, inter-district enrollment faces more opposition from the education establishment, presumably due to concerns about funding allocations. While 43 states have some form of inter-district choice, the accessibility varies significantly. Shockingly, in 19 of those state policies, it is not even mandatory for districts to offer open enrollment, but rather it is voluntary.
Susan Pendegrass, in her paper “Breaking Down Public School District Lines,” highlights the problematic nature of using district lines for school selection. Despite Brown v. Board of Education’s decisive conclusion that separate is not equal, “Using district lines to determine where a child goes to schools is a 200-year old mistake that has resulted in racial and socioeconomic segregation in U.S. public schools.” This practice inadvertently supports socioeconomic segregation in schools. Moreover, Pendegrass points out that voluntary open enrollment policies exacerbate disparities and can lead to districts “cherry picking” students.
While Montana has historically offered mandatory inter-district open enrollment, this was only because of certain circumstances due to geographical barriers between homes and district schools. Until recently, this option necessitated families to disclose personal details to validate their transfer request and subjected the decision to the sending district’s discretion. However, Montana recently improved its inter-district open enrollment policy, eliminating out-of-pocket-tuition fees for access to out-of-district schools.
Although many of the larger districts in Montana offer intra-district open enrollment, it is a voluntary policy, something experts discourage. A quick search of larger school district websites shows that Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula all assign students within district boundaries to designated zoned schools. Bozeman SD7 even cites the criminal statute applied for false residence claims to attend one of their schools, echoing a nationwide issue. In keeping with Pendagrass’s assessment that district zoning leads to segregation, in a recent study titled “Where Do Americans Mingle?,” researchers demonstrated that there is significantly more socioeconomic integration in chain restaurants and gas stations than there is in American public schools. Given this, does Montana’s zoning of children into neighborhood schools truly offer “equality of educational opportunity” as guaranteed in its constitution?
It is also worth noting how Montana’s new charter laws differ in this “equality of educational opportunity” guarantee through their enrollment offerings. While the Community Choice Schools Act states “A Community Choice School must be open to any student residing in the state,” (Section 11(1)(a)) the Public Charter Schools Act includes that exact same sentence followed six sentences later with, “A public charter school shall give enrollment preference to students who are residents of the located school district” (Section 8 (2)(a)). Why this discrepancy in enrollment offerings if the intent is truly to give all students options?
While I can’t answer this question, it’s evident Montana needs introspection. There’s an urgent need to break free from outdated education norms and embrace a more inclusive and adaptable education system. Other nations, admired for their educational outcomes like Poland, Finland, Canada and Estonia, have all embraced education pluralism. Why can’t Montana’s funding and school choice policies be equally pluralistic, focusing on funding students rather than funding structures?
Trish Schreiber is a senior education fellow at the Montana-based Frontier Institute.