One size doesn't fit all

Two local school districts have come to opposite decisions over the state's new open enrollment law. Neither choice was a surprise. But the long-term consequences of the new rules are unknown, and lawmakers should pay attention to what happens over the next few school years.

The new rules, adopted by the 2011 Legislature, changed the long-standing policy that required districts to agree before students could transfer to a district they didn't live in.

The new law allows automatic transfers if the target district has opted to participate. The district the student is transferring out of cannot prevent the student from leaving.

Districts have until March 1 to decide whether to adopt the new policy or keep the old.

The Medford School Board decided Monday to stay with the old system. Some board members said they saw little benefit to students. Another said the change was "rushed."

Meanwhile, the Ashland School Board voted to adopt the new open enrollment policy. That's not a surprise, given that Ashland has seen declining enrollment for a number of years.

Under Oregon's school funding system, money follows the student, so a district gets more than $6,000 in state funding for every student who transfers in — and loses that amount for every student who leaves.

Ashland also has a history of strong community support for schools, with residents agreeing to tax themselves to provide enhanced instruction, so parents have an incentive to send their children there.

Medford has roughly broken even on transfers in recent years under the old system, so it had no financial incentive to adopt the new rules.

Districts that opt in are not required to take students unless they have room for them, but they may not pick and choose based on academic or athletic ability, and must meet any special needs the students may have.

Parents are responsible for transportation, which tends to favor children from more affluent families.

That was one objection to the legislation when it was approved last year. Another was that small and struggling school districts could be damaged by an exodus of students and the per-pupil funding that went with them.

In the abstract, the freedom to choose a school district without having to move is attractive. So is the notion that open enrollment might foster competition among districts, thereby improving the quality of public education.

But there are also good reasons for children to attend school where they live. Building community is one of those reasons; another is making sure all students have an equal shot at a quality education, regardless of their family's economic situation.

State education officials should keep close watch on the new rules, and legislators should be prepared to make changes if unintended consequences crop up.

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