Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Wild West of Open Enrollment

As the current school voucher legislation is being fast tracked through the law-making process I believe it would be a wise course of action to slow down and ensure mistakes aren't made. If we can learn anything from [recent] history; public input, vetting, and scrutiny would only strengthen the process by ensuring the voices of Iowans are heard and unintended consequences are avoided. We don't need to look too far back to uncover some of those consequences. 

In the waning hours of the legislative session late last spring, the General Assembly removed the March 1 deadline that was applicable for students requesting open enrollment into a school district. Further, they legislated that the per pupil funding would follow immediately. Now, the March 1 deadline was in place to allow school districts ample planning time for the number of students they would have attending the next fall (and the funding that would accompany them) as well as knowing how many teachers they would need to employ. These changes were enacted without the benefit of public input where those charged with executing this policy change could have shared valuable insight into how this would likely play out in the real world. What we are beginning to see now is something akin to the 'Wild West of Open Enrollment' where anything goes.

Now, that's not to say open enrollment couldn't happen outside that window, it could and it did. Probably more frequently than most people realized. The majority of the time was for reasons known as 'good cause'. Good cause includes such factors as pervasive bullying that couldn't be adequately addressed in the resident school district, a known health reason, or, in some cases it was determined that a change in placement made sense for a variety of reasons. In all of these instances, superintendents at both districts (receiving and sending) had been able to work out an arrangement for the transfer with the caveat that the funding would flow the following year. This was to mitigate any disruptions to the sending district(s) budget--and the receiving district was almost always willing to accommodate the request. Why? Because any added cost is unlikely since the school year was already underway, and they could bank on that added funding for the 'out year'. If the receiving district already has the desk in the classroom and the supplies on hand, they are not adding any additional expense. The sending district on the other hand had already invested in the supplies and human resources needed to educate the pupil. It's not like you can simply send them back or let the teacher go. Much like the current voucher legislation that is being proposed: the expense side of the ledger has not been impacted, the revenue side most certainly has. 

Part of the reason for this late change to the open enrollment law was to expand school choice, which has been a major priority for the governor for the last several years. To date, those efforts have been unsuccessful because the legislature (acting in a bipartisan manner) has understood and recognized the dangers of school voucher schemes and the real harm they will do to local public school districts. This [change in open enrollment] was likely an attempt to assuage the fact that the preferred school choice legislation was not going to advance last session. Further speculation as to why the law changed so abruptly could be due to policy decisions that were made by a local school district in eastern Iowa that wasn't all that popular with some parents. The theory was that the district purposely waited to adopt the policy until after March 1, thus 'trapping' some parents and families in the district who otherwise would have opted for open enrollment prior to the adoption of said policy. It all sounds pretty conspiratorial to me, but some legislators have made that point. If that is the case, one might question why a policy decision made by a single school district in the state should impact the state public school system writ large. Why on earth should Hudson be held accountable for the policy decisions of another school district?

In full disclosure, Hudson is net positive when it comes to open enrollment. In fact, we are net positive by a pretty large margin. This means a change in open enrollment laws for us is much more nuanced. But, there is no mistake that it does have a negative impact. 

Again, the law was changed very late under the cover of darkness and without any input as to what the possible consequences of such an act would be. Had there been an opportunity to provide input into this proposal, it could have been addressed differently and some of the more onerous consequences could have been avoided. Some of those consequences are now being felt. By removing the March 1 deadline, the good cause provision is a thing of the past. This means students can leave at any time during the school year for any reason or no reason. Proponents would probably argue this is exactly the point: people can 'vote with their feet'. If the district doesn't respond in the way you want, you can just 'take your ball and go home'. Don't like the grade you got in English? Open enroll. Don't agree with the late start last week due to weather? Open enroll. The team isn't good enough for your star athlete? Open enroll. A student detention for insubordination? Open enroll. A family is held accountable for truancy? Open enroll. No bus ride from two blocks away? Open enroll. 

The examples are endless and unfortunately aren't far off the mark. It creates an environment of instability, not only for the school district that has to mitigate the abrupt changes to classroom rosters, but to the student who is leaving for a new school. For sure there will be gaps in learning for the student. And depending on the age of the youngster, being the 'new kid' in class isn't always easy-- especially when you leave a well established peer group. 

For some school districts, especially the small rural ones, the financial implications could be catastrophic. If a few students leave one grade level, a district may find itself in a position where they are upside down with staffing: in the middle of the year with no way to address it. 

Again, in Hudson we are net positive with open enrollment so the impact isn't quite so dramatic. But it is a reality and it does have a negative impact. We have had students leave this year using this new law as their vehicle. Some of the reasons were suspect, others had no reason at all (see example above: they are not made up). A few were actually very good reasons where the family worked with the building principal for an appropriate placement: which they could have done without this change to law. Not that it mattered because it is no longer a requirement of the law. The funding that will follow immediately will likely have no bearing on our hiring decisions going forward. At this point we don't have to worry about anyone losing their job due to overstaffing. But there was real funding that we were counting on for our budget that we can no longer count on: somewhere in excess of $10,000. This could mean the difference between making a curriculum decision now or a delay to some point in the future. And if it continues to create instability? The legislature would be wise to carefully consider the decisions they make.

No comments:

Post a Comment