By DOUG LIVINGSTON
Akron Beacon Journal
Open enrollment, which allows children to transfer from one school district to another, leads to widespread racial segregation and concentrates poverty in many of Ohio’s urban school districts.
That’s one finding of an Akron Beacon Journal study of more than 8,000 Ohio students who left city schools last year for an education in wealthier suburban communities.
The majority of students who participated in Ohio’s oldest school choice program are disproportionately white and middle class. Students attending the schools they left, however, are nearly twice as likely to be minority and seven times more likely to be poor.
The program gives parents the option to enroll children in nearby school districts without changing their home address. By doing so, parents must find their own transportation - an act that in itself narrows who is able to make the change.
And, at least in the case of Akron students transferring to suburban Coventry schools, there is evidence that they excel. A study of test scores shows that nonresident students out-perform Coventry children in grades four through eight.
Like her two younger sisters, Cassie Kelley is a straight-A student at Coventry. The thought of attending Akron schools, where her parents graduated in the late 1980s, has never crossed the senior’s mind.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I’ve never had an issue at Coventry. The teachers are respectful and nice. The students are great. It’s a nice environment. I feel safe.”
Her parents, a city engineer and a self-employed entrepreneur, have raised Cassie in what her father calls a “middle-class neighborhood” in South Akron.
Cassie might have gone to Kenmore or Garfield - Akron schools hardest hit by open enrollment - had her parents not chosen the Coventry school district when she was 5.
Of the 1,947 students who left Akron through open enrollment last year, more than half would have attended those two school clusters.
Neighborhoods with the fewest students leaving are Firestone, which also graduates the highest percentage of college-ready students in the city, and Buchtel, a largely low-income, African-American community. Those schools border the upscale, suburban Copley-Fairlawn school district, which does not accept open-enrollment students.
Garfield and Kenmore residents are conveniently located near Springfield, Norton and Coventry, which draw the most Summit County students through open enrollment. School districts in Summit County that accept no open-enrollment students are Copley-Fairlawn, Revere, Hudson, Nordonia Hills, Tallmadge and Twinsburg.
Other schools may accept only a limited number of students until they fill seats and optimize efficiency.
Akron, compared to other major cities, has more border districts with open enrollment. Nearly all suburban school districts surrounding Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati and Dayton block outsiders, forcing parents - with no alternative for a public education - to take a chance on charter schools, which have performed on a whole no better than the urban schools they set out to reform more than 15 years ago.
The Kelleys drop their daughters off at a Coventry school each morning so they don’t have to get up early to catch a bus. With careful consideration to the family’s finances, they bought a second family car, a 2007 Nissan Sentra, for Cassie to commute between Coventry High School and Stark State College, where she’s wrapping up a four-semester head start on a nursing degree.
In the afternoon, Cassie’s parents drive a mile south of their home off South Arlington Street and pick up the younger sisters, 16 and 12, at a “very convenient” bus stop that caters to open-enrollment students.
Brent Kelley, Cassie’s father, takes his daughters’ education very seriously. He has taught them to be fiscally responsible, to live debt free and to take advantage of the best education he can provide.
“For me, it’s what’s best for my kids, and then what do I have to do to make sure that that happens,” Brent said.
“It’s up to the parents to make sure that their kids are in the right district. And if they don’t feel like they’re in the right district, then they need to take the initiative to find the right district for their kids,” he said.
HOW OPEN ENROLLMENT WORKS
For each student who leaves, $5,745 in state funding follows. It’s an incentive that drives some suburban schools to accept more students. Coventry, for example, receives $2,178 in state aid for each of its own students, or less than half of what the state gives to accept an open-enrolled student.
Districts cannot stop students from leaving.
Reasons districts may want to accept students:
-It helps fill a budget gap.
-It fills classroom seats that otherwise would be empty, thus maximizing income for each class.
-It helps sustain or create course offerings or extracurricular programs that otherwise would not be available.