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Interdistrict choice on rise – at least in law

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Interdistrict school choice programs allowing students to enroll in schools outside of the school district where they reside have been bolstered by dozens of state laws passed since the 1980s.

According to a May 2003 report by the Education Commission of the States, almost a quarter of the states have laws mandating school districts to participate in interdistrict school choice (often called open enrollment programs).

In addition, over one third of states, including Pennsylvania, permit but do not require school districts to participate in interdistrict choice.

State laws about interdistrict choice are a relatively recent phenomenon, sparked by a statewide open enrollment program launched in Minnesota in the late 1980s. Other open enrollment programs have been included as part of metropolitan desegregation programs.

Interdistrict choice has received new attention recently as a result of a push spurred by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to offer families more public school choices.

While the No Child Left Behind Act only requires that choice be provided within school districts, it also suggests offering interdistrict options if adequate choice is not available within a district.

Some districts have been forced to look outside of their boundaries to provide school choice because the majority of schools in their district have been labeled low-performing and are therefore not a transfer option. In such cases, the No Child Left Behind Act requires the district to try "to the extent practicable" to make agreements with outside school districts.

In Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District, where the district is obligated to offer students choice but has no eligible schools within the district to which they could transfer, the schools chief has met with superintendents from several surrounding Delaware County school districts to discuss the possibility of allowing interdistrict transfers.

The Radnor School Board voted in late August to deny the Chester School District’s request. Other districts have not yet announced formal decisions; no district has offered to participate in the interdistrict choice with Chester.

State Secretary of Education Vicki Phillips said in an August press conference that while Pennsylvania law does not mandate interdistrict choice nor stipulate financial arrangements should districts choose to participate, the state’s Department of Education encourages school districts to work together to provide interdistrict choice where and how they deem it appropriate.

Even in many states where interdistrict choice is mandated by law, it is not easily implemented. Out-of-district student transfers are usually subject to space availability.

For school districts like Chester Upland or Philadelphia, where surrounding school districts spend significantly higher amounts per student, financial agreements usually leave little incentive for richer districts to participate.

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