Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability

Open Enrollment: Using Public School-Choice Options to Improve Student Performance

Gov. Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission could create an unprecedented new expansion of high-quality school options by proposing statewide open enrollment policy

For Immediate Release: Monday, November 12, 2012

Contact: B. Jason Brooks, Director of Research

(518) 383-2598

  • Press Release (pdf)
  • Summary of Recommendations (pdf)
  • Full Report: School’s Open! Expanding Interdistrict and Intradistrict Open Enrollment at Public Schools in New York State (pdf)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could dramatically break through the logjam of failed education reforms and immediately improve the quality of education provided to thousands of New York students by allowing new transfer options for students from failing schools to attend better-quality schools.  A statewide open enrollment public school-choice program, outlined in a new report from the Albany area-based Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, shows how.

“Chronically-failing schools, which are overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income urban neighborhoods, are one of the primary causes of the income- and racially-based performance gaps generated by New York’s educational system,” said B. Jason Brooks, Director of Research for the Albany-area foundation.  “A lack of choice among quality public school choice options, and no sign of a ‘silver bullet’ coming to deliver the reform needed to remedy the state’s education ills, there appears to be no end in sight to this educational neglect.  Fortunately, other states – and some pockets here in New York – have shown how disadvantaged students can benefit from open-enrollment policies providing without a requirement of significant new public funding.”

Mr. Brooks added that a recommendation for an innovative open enrollment policy by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New NY Education Reform Commission, which completed hearings across the state late last month, would stand in sharp contrast to the typical repeated calls for more funding without real accountability by offering a dramatic expansion of public school choice options to all students.

The report, School’s Open! Expanding Interdistrict and Intradistrict Open Enrollment at Public Schools in New York State, identifies how a new mandatory Statewide Interdistrict Open Enrollment Program could be created to permit parents to choose among multiple better-quality schools located in and outside of their district lines, ending the practice of assigning students to schools based solely on where their families can afford to live.  (Summary offered below, with link to full report)

Research shows significant benefits for students participating in school-choice programs: higher academic achievement; system-wide reforms spurred by competition; reduced criminal behavior; lower dropout rates; increased diversity at participating schools; and, increased parent satisfaction.  An open-enrollment program also would take another step toward New York’s court-ordered mandate of a policy of educational equality.

State legislatures’ move toward open-enrollment policies is due in part to the ability to create alternative quality options for students in failing schools without requiring significant new public spending.  As of 2011, 48 states have some form or multiple forms of open enrollment in place.  Since 2010, five states (California, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, and Virginia) have adopted laws establishing new open enrollment programs and six others (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin) have expanded existing open enrollment programs.

New York is home to a variety of local open enrollment programs, the largest and most significant being the interdistrict program in Rochester and intradistrict programs in Buffalo and New York City.  The local effects of these programs, while generally positive, are limited and beg for the broader application of a statewide open enrollment policy that would benefit all New York, noted Brooks.

While New York does have a voluntary and permissive open-enrollment law on the books, it is one of the least effective in the nation due to the significant barriers it leaves in place for students wishing to transfer public schools, including allowing the application by receiving the public schools of significant tuition costs, screening of students by receiving districts, and a lack of transportation funding for transferring students.

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Summary of recommendations from:


To best end the cycle of failure evidenced by New York’s urban public schools, an effective open enrollment public school choice policy would be designed to immediately increase student achievement by including the following elements:

“Big Five” Intradistrict Open Enrollment: Given the significant concentrations of failing schools in New York’s largest cities, the “Big Five” school districts (Buffalo; New York City; Rochester; Syracuse; Yonkers) would be required to implement intradistrict open-enrollment for all students at all grade levels served.  Assigning students to zoned schools based on residence would be replaced by allowing families to select and prioritize the schools they want their children to attend.

Statewide Interdistrict Open Enrollment: To significantly increase the number of choice options available to the largest number of students, a statewide interdistrict open enrollment policy with mandatory participation from all high-performing school districts would be authorized.

Student Eligibility: All public school students residing in the “Big Five” city school districts could be made eligible to participate in intradistrict open enrollment, selecting their schools of choice within the city; all other students in the state could be made eligible for interdistrict open enrollment choice.  Preference could be offered to low-income students transferring from failing schools.

Ensuring Capacity: To ensure that sufficient options are available, a minimum number of seats in high-quality receiving districts would be required to be open to students transferring from other districts.  A reasonable threshold could be set at 10 percent of the average enrollment in each grade level at each existing school facility.

Matchmaking Students and Schools: Through mandatory open houses, annual school fairs, and making information about transfer options and school performance data readily available in an easy-to-understand format, families would become educated consumers and select schools that best suit the needs of their children.  To ensure that students seeking transfers are matched with their most-desired schools, families could be required to rank their preferences and a computerized system could match students to available schools based on these preferences.

Transportation: Student transportation could be required for all students regardless of where they live for the state’s “Big Five” districts.  For students exercising out-of-district transfer options, districts could be required to transport students attending schools within 15 miles of the students’ residence (the same requirement currently in place for students attending non-public schools).   Additional allowances could be made to make as many out-of-district options available to students as possible.

Funding: To benefit the most students and give successful schools the capacity to expand and serve more students, per-pupil aid for the district in which students live should follow students to the out-of-district schools to which they transfer, similar to the current process for aid for charter school students.  Receiving districts are likely to find such an arrangement sufficiently lucrative to encourage widespread participation.

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The Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability (FERA) is an independent, nonprofit, research organization dedicated to improving education in New York State by promoting accountability, stimulating innovation, and supporting school-choice efforts across the state