Leaky pipes, cracked walls, and nonexistent insulation — these were just a few of the findings from a recent report by ProPublica and the Idaho Statesman regarding the condition of Idaho’s least-funded public schools. The areas surrounding the schoolhouses weren’t much better as the report detailed hazardous playgrounds with screws sticking out from the play structures. These school conditions are unacceptable. But for students living in districts subject to residential assignment, such schools are often their only option.
Residential assignment determines the school a student attends based solely on the proximity of their home address. Luckily, last month Idaho’s state legislature passed a comprehensive open enrollment law which will end mandated residential assignment for all Idaho students, allowing them to attend any public school within or between districts. The policy will be enacted as soon as the 2023-24 school year. Policymakers in states still lacking public school choice should attempt to replicate Idaho’s example.
Although assigning students to public schools based on their home address may seem practical and harmless, this approach forms the basis of many structural inequities in the American K-12 education system. School zone maps frequently used for residential assignment significantly overlap with the discriminatory color-coded maps previously used for redlining. As a result, students whose families cannot afford to live in wealthier neighborhoods are denied access to higher-quality public schools which would receive more funding from property taxes. This structural barrier relegates students from lower-income families to lower-performing public schools that receive fewer funds—like those highlighted in the ProPublica report.
Lower-income parents or guardians who can’t afford housing in neighborhoods zoned for high-quality schools are faced with a decision: They can either accept the poor public education their child will receive at their assigned school, or send them to a non-assigned school and risk potential jail time or fines. These are risks many parents are willing to take, and indeed many parents will falsify or share their addresses to escape the poor education quality in some of these schools.
But why should there be any risk at all?
Public school choice — also called open enrollment — benefits students from various backgrounds. Studies looking at states that previously implemented open enrollment, such as California and Wisconsin, have reported improved school offerings for all involved as schools must compete with one another to boost their enrollment numbers to gain funding. Moreover, in Wisconsin, after the first initial years of the program, even the districts that lost the most students had statistically significant performance increases, proving that public school choice has the potential to improve public education quality across the spectrum.
If reducing discrimination and improving student outcomes aren’t enough to convince state policymakers to implement public school choice, better electoral results should. According to a recent survey from Morning Consult and EdChoice, open enrollment is extremely popular, as two-thirds of adult voters supported public school choice. It has received bipartisan support in state legislatures as well; Idaho’s recent law enjoyed nearly full bi-partisan support in both state chambers before being signed by Governor Brad Little. Furthermore, recent elections have shown support that school choice can play a deciding factor, and as public school choice becomes more prominent in state legislatures, policymakers would be wise to stay on the side supporting educational freedom.
When students are stuck in crumbling schoolhouses, it’s clear that we need a new approach to school assignment. Idaho legislators significantly expanded student opportunities in the Gem State by ending the outdated practice of residential assignment. Other state policymakers should do the same and attempt to meet the individual needs of the families of the students they represent