Attending a school outside your district is getting easier in Kansas. Not everyone’s happy

by Trace Salzbrenner

Imagine you’re a parent and your child goes to Northwest High School in Wichita. The Maize public school district sits nearby, a wealthier community where graduation rates and ACT scores run higher.

If you’d wanted to enroll your children in Maize in fall 2023, the school district would have said no.

Starting next fall, Maize’s school district would have to at least make that possible — and only turn away your Wichita kid if it can show the district can’t take on any new students.

But suburban schools recoil at the new state law that forces them to take in children who don’t live in their districts — and whose parents don’t pay the property taxes that make their higher-performing schools possible.

“Students who come from out of district,” said Jeffrey Jarman, a member of the Maize school board, “only bring part of necessary revenue to run the schools.” 

Supporters of the change, much like those who back using public school money to send students to private schools, say it increases parents’ choices and encourages schools to work harder to keep students closer to home.

Starting in 2024, parents can apply to enroll their children in any public school district in Kansas. 

So Wichita parents, for instance, who don’t like the school their child attends because of the curriculum, class sizes or some political bias can apply to a different school district, like Maize or Andover. 

Jarman and others say the change takes control away from local school boards like the one in Maize. 

“This was imposed by the state and not the product of lobbying by school districts,” Jarman said. 

The Kansas Association of School Boards lobbied against change adopted by the Legislature in 2022. Leah Fliter, a lobbyist for the association, said that schools already had the option to create their own open-enrollment policy for students who live outside the district. 

“It was our testimony that it was really not necessary,” Fliter said. “In most cases, there were already locally developed open-enrollment plans in place.” 

But roughly one in 10 districts in the state — including Andover and Maize — didn’t have a way for out-of-district students to enroll in their schools.

Stan Reeser, a school board member at Wichita Public Schools, said that could be a problematic step toward weakening the control local communities have over their schools.

“If the Legislature decides to further take away local control on open enrollment,” Reeser said, “then that’s when you will end up with some real problems.” 

Reeser already sees problems with bloated class sizes, too little funding to pay teacher salaries and overcrowding schools being a potential outcome.  

Gov. Laura Kelly also had concerns about taking power away from local school boards. The open-enrollment policy was included in the state’s school funding bill and, in a statement after signing the bill, Kelly said “the Legislature must … ensure that elected school board members maintain local control.”

How did Kansas change open enrollment? 

The new law requires school boards to create ways for students who live outside their boundaries to apply for enrollment.

The deadline to create that policy is the end of 2023. The new rules start with the 2024-2025 school year. 

Before May 2024, each school district will need to declare how many students it can accept from outside its boundaries and publish those numbers on its website.

School districts can say they have no open spots, but the Kansas Department of Education will independently audit every district’s capacity yearly. 

Finding the Andover district’s capacity “will start after we come back from winter break,” said Brett White, superintendent of Andover Public Schools. 

The number of openings a district needs to offer to students outside its boundaries hinges on the size of the faculty, space in schools and future growth projections of the district.  

“We will have to count our student-teacher ratio in every class,” White said. “And in every building.” 

And even if a family’s children enroll in a school — the new law says if a district accepts one child, their siblings have priority to enroll, too — parents can’t pick which school in a district their children will attend. 

If the number of outsider enrollment applications is larger than the open slots, that triggers a lottery.

How will this affect enrollment next year?

Applications for enrollment will run through June. Parents can apply to more than one school district. 

Districts must tell parents by July 15 if their children got in. 

Kids can be denied admission only if there is not enough space in the school district that they applied to. But districts can refuse to reenroll students in the following years for too many suspensions, expulsion or absenteeism. 

Does this Kansas school choice policy include private schools?

The change only affects public schools. 

Still, some school administrators worry that the change opens the way for school vouchers that divert tax dollars to private schools. 

“We know that legislative leadership has been vocal here in the past few weeks,” Fliter said. “Vouchers are going to be a priority for them again in 2024.” 

James Harris, the president of the Andover teachers union, said the change sets the stage for private school vouchers. 

“It’s all just … trying to force that issue in,” Harris said. “If they can’t do it with vouchers, they’re going to do it a different way.”

Overland Park Democrat state Sen. Cindy Holscher told the Kansas Reflector when the Legislature was debating the issue that “the provisions in this bill tilt the game against our public schools and help clear the path for showing failure and privatization.”

Elizabeth Patton, a lobbyist for the conservative Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, told The Topeka Capital-Journal that she wished the bill had more to increase the choices parents have. The organization backed the law change to let parents choose the education they want for their children.

Will this affect school funding?

Schools rely primarily on property taxes and state aid — based mostly on enrollment numbers — for funding.

Property taxes from a student’s home district won’t follow them to their new schools. The state aid will, but not right away.

School officials worry about the lag in state funding that’s based on a previous year’s enrollment, not on the year when those outside students first transfer.

What other issues might school choice in Kansas cause?

Andover voters approved a bond issue in 2017 to build a new school to accommodate projected growth. That might mean the district will have a harder time convincing state regulators the district lacks room for out-of-district students.

But people in Andover agreed to tax themselves more for that growth for the benefit of Andover families.

“We need to be very strategic and very cautious as we develop those capacities and open spots,” White said. “Because there is a cumulative effect.” 

The ride to schools falls to the families. Andover and Maize buses, for instance, won’t fetch students from Wichita.

“The reality is, transportation is not going to be provided by the district,” Harris said. 

That means families will have to find other means to drop off and pick up their children. For parents with children in different buildings, it can be more difficult. 

“You would need to have flexibility if you’re working,” White said. “You’ll need to essentially take off because we won’t transport nonresident students.”

The transportation barrier could pose an equity problem. Families with more money, or more flexibility with their work schedules, will have an easier time hauling their children to school. 

“It’s already hard enough to plan for this, when you just have your defined boundary,” Jarman said. “It’s even more complicated when you have a new way to add other students to it.” 

This article was published here with permission of The Wichita Beacon.