School leaders sound alarm on open enrollment

Local school leaders in Wake County and elsewhere say a draft proposal to open school enrollment - even across district lines - would create chaos and tax inequities.

Posted Updated
State Sen. Fletcher L. Hartsell Jr., R-District 36
Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — Local school leaders in Wake County and elsewhere say a draft proposal to open school enrollment - even across district lines - would create chaos and tax inequities.
The draft proposal, scheduled to be heard Monday by the Joint Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, won subcommittee approval earlier this week. It's based on a Colorado school district that's often held up as an example by advocates of school choice. 

The bill, authored by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, would allow all students to enroll in the school of their choice, either in their home districts or in other districts, beginning in the 2015-16 school year.  

State and local per-pupil funding would follow the student to his or her choice of school, even across district lines. NC Association of School Administrators director Katherine Joyce said her members have "reservations" about that.

"Counties fund education at different levels, so the likelihood of funding disparity increases," Joyce said.  "A county receiving students from a neighboring county district with a lower level of local education funding will feel that financial impact per student." 

Wake School Board chairwoman Christine Kushner said open enrollment would make it difficult "to give stability to the families that live in Wake County, to give stability to the taxpayers in the community that are building the schools."

The proposal doesn't address the costs of school construction. Wake County last year passed an $810 million bond to pay for new schools. Hartsell's bill would allow students from other counties to fill the seats while Wake taxpayers foot the bill.

The draft would allow districts to turn down new students if seats aren't available, but Kushner says that doesn't cover new schools. 

"How do you plan for growth?" Kushner asked. "When we open a new school, it's very difficult to open at 100% full." 

Wake County Schools tried school choice briefly in 2012. The short-lived experiment resulted in a chaotic enrollment process and busing problems that lasted for weeks. Kushner said it added 10,000 more miles a day to the district's bus routes. 

"We ended up spending more than $2 million on buses in that year alone," she said. "So I think there's a lot to be learned from choice plans before we embark on anything that resembles that sort of plan statewide."

Hartsell's bill recommends that districts provide district-wide busing, but would not require it. Students who enroll in a different district would have to provide their own transportation.

That's a problem, too, said NCASA's Joyce. 

"The proposed legislation ensures that our working families and less-privileged students will be unable to take advantage of school choice because it neglects the issue of transportation," she said. 'Families without the means to transport their children are left with limited options, which will result in a less diverse school population."

Joyce said school districts already have the authority to allow open enrollment if it's the best choice for them. "How school assignment is handled at the district level should not be mandated by the State, but should remain under the purview of the community’s locally elected school board," she added.

Hartsell did not respond to a request for comment on his proposal.   

The full Program Evaluation Oversight committee will take up the draft Monday as part of its proposed recommended legislation. If it's approved, lawmakers could take up the bill in the session that begins later this month. 



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