Oregon lawmakers push open enrollment overhaul

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — Two years after the Oregon Legislature passed an open enrollment law allowing kids to attend schools outside their home districts, some lawmakers are seeking to have it curtailed.

The push by Democrats has reignited one of the Legislature's most contentious partisan battles from years past, aggravating Republicans who say the law they fought for has barely had time to take root.

Open enrollment was part of an education overhaul crafted behind closed doors and passed in 2011 to give both parties a piece of what they wanted. It narrowly averted a breakdown of a fragile power-sharing agreement in a House of Representatives that was then evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Now, Republicans say the Democrats are trying to undo parts of the bargain they don't like. Open enrollment was meant to be a five-year experiment, and the law is set to expire in 2017.

“It's not good policy, that when one party takes over control of the state the way the Democratic Party is now, to then target the bipartisan legislation from the previous session,” said House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.

But Democrats dispute the idea that the law was passed in a bipartisan spirit.

“I wouldn't call the education package that went through in 2011 a shining example of bipartisanship,” said House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene. Several school districts are unhappy with the open enrollment law, she said.

“I think it's fair that we take a look at it again,” she said.

Open enrollment advocates say zip codes shouldn't be a determining factor in a child's education, and that school choice creates healthy competition among districts.

Opponents say it stratifies low-income families and harms the school districts that students leave.

Under the 2011 law, parents have a one-month sign-up window beginning March 1 to apply to transfer students to an outside school district. The transfer requires the permission only of the district that would receive the student. Monday is the last day parents can apply to for a transfer during the 2013-14 school year.

Proposed legislation backed by Democrats would require transfer students to get permission from the home district as well, which is how out-of-district transfers were carried out before the 2011 measure was enacted. Schools are reluctant to let students transfer because they take with them about $6,000 in state and local funding.

“We need to give schools districts the ability to plan,” said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Democrat from Portland. She said giving home schools a say in who can leave would alleviate some of the devastating financial consequences open enrollment has had on districts that lose students.

Critics of open enrollment worry that it will become a tool for well-off families to move their children to schools the parents believe are higher-quality.

A single, working-class mother with two jobs won't be able to drive her children to school in another district, said Morgan Allen, a lobbyist for the Oregon School Boards Association, which opposed the 2011 law.

“What we're seeing is that low-income students and students from families who are struggling in this economy are the ones who are not being able to take advantage of this opportunity,” Allen said.

Schools with large non-English speaking or low-income populations are especially at risk of losing students, he said.

Open enrollment advocates say anxiety about losing students prods districts to improve.

“The solution is not to hold the kids captive to that underperforming school,” he said. “The solution is to hold the administration accountable. We should be asking, ‘Why are kids leaving that school?’”

It's premature to overhaul the policy during the first school year in which it's effective and four years before it's set to automatically expire, school-choice advocates said.

“It's egregious,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, a West Linn Republican and a strong proponent of open enrollment. She said the law could use some legislative tweaks, but called the legislation put forward “ridiculous.”

Not all districts participate in open enrollment, and Oregon's three largest — Portland, Salem-Keizer and Beaverton — are notable exclusions. Whether open enrollment is helpful or harmful depends on the district.

Rep. Ben Unger, D-Hillsboro, told the House Education Committee earlier this month that the Forest Grove School District was devastated by open enrollment. The district lost 68 students and $408,000 in state funding to other districts.

But the superintendent of the Alsea School District southwest of Corvallis, which has fewer than 150 students, told lawmakers his district had lost nearly half of its students during the past 15 years and open enrollment revived it. The district added 23 students for 2012-13.

The Oregon Department of Education does not keep track of how many students transfer to new districts, making it difficult to measure the impact.

Students transfer for various reasons. It can be because the home school doesn't offer a specialized academic program, or for personal reasons such as bullying or living geographically closer to a school in another district.

Another flashpoint in the open enrollment debate is whether districts should be able to run marketing campaigns to recruit families to their schools. The Alsea School District spent $8,000 on marketing but received more than $100,000 in state and local funding from transfer students, the district's superintendent Marc Thielman told lawmakers. Critics say it's an inefficient use of funds.

Democratic lawmakers have sponsored other bills that would add restrictions to the open enrollment law. A Republican-backed bill would allow open-enrollment year-round.

It is unclear if any of the proposed legislation to expand, limit or overhaul open enrollment will make it out of the House Education Committee this session. To be sure, the battle lines are drawn.

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