Open enrollment: a law that won lofty praise but will likely have little impact

Idaho students can essentially attend any public school in the state, according to a new law that goes into effect July 1. 

Advocates of Senate Bill 1125 — the first rewrite of Idaho’s open enrollment law in three decades — are extolling it as progress toward greater student equity, parent empowerment, and school choice. 

The law is an “end to school zoning discrimination” according to yes. every kid., a national nonprofit. 

It’s a win for parental rights, according to Sen. Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls:  “The passage of Senate Bill 1125 further demonstrates that parents know what is best for their children’s education experience.”

And Gov. Brad Little touted it as another example of school choice (a narrative he’s pushing amid calls for education savings accounts): Senate Bill 1125 fits right into our responsible, transparent, accountable approach to expanding school choice.”

But political grandstanding aside, superintendents say it aligns with policies that are already in place.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think the request for transfers will have a big impact,” Twin Falls School District Superintendent Brady Dickinson said. “Most people want to attend their neighborhood school.”

But the law did update antiquated policy, and it makes the de facto reality — open enrollment — official for traditional schools. (Charter schools will continue to use their existing lottery processes to determine enrollment.)

Here’s what the law will entail once it’s in place and the effects it might have — however small. 

What the open enrollment law means for parents and students

According to the law, students can transfer to any public school — within or outside their school or district boundaries — at any point during the school year. 

However, there are some caveats:

  • The school must have space.
  • The student must have a record of good behavior and attendance.
  • Parents must provide transportation to the preferred school, or to a bus stop that serves the school.
  • Preference will be given to students whose parents live within the school’s district, and to those who have applied by Feb. 1 for the next school year.
  • Acceptance to the preferred school can be revoked if absences or behavior problems persist or if the school reaches capacity.
  • It’s also important to note that transferring to a new school could affect a student’s athletic eligibility (which is governed by the Idaho High School Activities Association)

Parents must apply for a transfer the first year; notify the school of attendance plans the second year; and kids are essentially grandfathered into the school afterward. The automatic acceptance after two years is a change under the new law. 

And students who are accepted into a preferred elementary school don’t get automatic acceptance into its feeder middle school — they would have to reapply. 

If a student’s application for transfer is denied or revoked, parents have recourse (the specific, state-mandated plan of action is also new):

  • Parents who are unhappy with a denial or revocation can appeal to the local school board, but must do so within five school days. 
  • If the board stands by the denial or revocation and the parents in question are still unhappy, they can appeal to the State Board of Education, but must do so within 10 school days. The decision made at that time would be final.  

What open enrollment means for schools, districts, and taxpayers

Many school districts — such as West Ada and Twin Falls — already have open enrollment policies on the books that are similar to the requirements in the new law. 

But there are a few nuances districts will have to consider — like how to offer open enrollment while being mindful of population growth; how to track and report enrollment information; and what out-of-district transfers could mean for taxpayers. 

The two-year guarantee will add complexity for growing schools

The new law’s two-year rule could make it harder for schools to adapt to growing populations.  

“If a district gets in a situation where they’ve accepted a bunch of kids and then they hit capacity, they’re kind of stuck between a rock and hard place there,” said Nick Smith, West Ada’s deputy superintendent.

Another downside is that uneven student numbers could require administrators to move teachers from one school to another, Dickinson said. 

New data reporting requirements could be an extra burden for districts

The open enrollment law will also require districts and charters to report more data — and more often — on how many students they have and where they’re attending school. 

At least four times each year, every school district and charter will have to post on their website the space available at each school, grade level, and program. And districts will have to report that information to the State Department of Education — along with the number of applications received, accepted, and denied. 

The SDE will then share the provided information with legislators by Feb. 1 of each year. 

“The reporting is going to be both a challenge and a change,” Dickinson said.

Smith said West Ada already generates that data so the reporting shouldn’t be too difficult — as long as the State Department’s reporting requirements aren’t overly arduous. 

“It may be a greater challenge in districts that don’t have IT departments or don’t have staff running those types of reports,” Smith said. 

Out-of-district transfers would come from households that aren’t paying taxes for their preferred school

Some patrons may be concerned that out-of-district students will take advantage of schools that their parents didn’t pay taxes for. 

During floor debate on the bill, Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, said this aspect of the law could set bonds up for “a bit of a failure.” Taxpayers will be less likely to pay for new schools if they’re needed because of out-of-district transfers. 

Nelsen advocated for passing the bill, but wanted lawmakers to be aware of the potential complication.

Smith said West Ada already hosts students from other districts like Nampa, Kuna, Boise and Vallivue. Time will tell if the new law leads to more out-of-district transfers, he said. 

At least in Twin Falls, Dickinson said a sudden influx of out-of-district students is unlikely, and the transfers gained and lost with neighboring districts is often a wash anyway.

Districts must be careful not to deny enrollment based on ability or disability 

At Wednesday’s legislative roadshow in Pocatello, Chief Deputy Superintendent Ryan Cantrell warned district leaders to “be very careful if you try to define capacity for special education programs.” Doing so could lead to a policy that unintentionally discriminates against students with disabilities.


Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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