Open enrollment makes schools more competitive, study says

February 21, 2012

Wisconsin's open enrollment program is creating competition between schools and resulting in higher test scores, according to a new study by David Welsch, assistant professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

"There's almost no research published about open enrollment programs. The few papers that exist deal with why students switch districts," Welsch said. "We wanted to know the answer to a key policy question: Do these programs actually improve school quality?"

Wisconsin's open enrollment program, implemented in the late 1990s, allows families to send their children to schools outside their home district.

Welsch and co-author David Zimmer from Western Kentucky University looked at data from nearly every public school district in Wisconsin from 2002-2006.

Information included socioeconomic details, school characteristics and standardized test scores. Most importantly, it included data on students who took advantage of the open enrollment program.

"There's a common assumption that the brightest kids are leaving to attend better districts. Our research finds no evidence this is the case," Welsch said.

Welsch found districts that saw students leave produced higher standardized test scores the next year. Specifically, schools that had a 5 percentage point increase in students leaving saw a 4 - 7 percentage point increase in the number of students who scored advanced or proficient on their exams.

Surprisingly, there was almost no change in test scores for districts that received transfer students. Welsch said this suggests districts are more concerned with preventing students from leaving, than recruiting them.

"Faced with losing students and funding to other schools, districts have to respond to that competition by improving quality," Welsch said. "They're less likely to react when enrollment is robust. This is important information for states to consider as they implement or change their open enrollment programs."

Welsch's research on public education in Wisconsin is ongoing, but he could find no evidence that there is a connection between student ability and transferring.

"Parent dissatisfaction with the district is likely a central reason why they move their students to other schools," he said. "Transportation issues or proximity to a parent's workplace could be other reasons why students transfer."

Another reason is what Welsch calls "useful sorting."

"If a student is very interested in robotics, but your district doesn't have a robotics program, it makes sense to change districts," he said.

The study is published in the Economics of Education Review.


Sara Kuhl