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Open Enrollment Brings Up Race and Financial Concerns for Some Ohio School Districts

Of the 600 plus public school districts in Ohio, more than three-quarters have open enrollment policies. That means they accept and educate students who live outside of their district boundaries.

Open enrollment was implemented by state lawmakers nearly 30 years ago to increase options for parents and students, an early example of school choice. For some districts, it’s creating financial hardship and new instances of segregation.

On a Monday evening, members of the Liberty Local Board of Education gathered in an upstairs room of the district’s high school and gaveled in for their monthly meeting. The revision of a policy first approved by the board in April was on the agenda.

That resolution said basically this: white students who live in the Liberty Local School District were no longer allowed to open enroll into Girard City Schools, a neighboring school district. Both Liberty and Girard are suburbs of Youngstown that have open enrollment.

“They are doing everything they can to get our children to go to their school district. They take 100 of our kids,” said Joe Nohra, superintendent of Liberty Local Schools.

In his district of 1,100 students, 100 choose to enroll in Girard, but another 350 also leave for other public school districts, charters, or use vouchers to attend private schools. For every student that leaves for a public option, the district has to give up the state money that helps pay for their education, which is about $6,100 per student.

“Our tuition out, which includes all open enrollment, every dollar that gets deducted is over $2.5 million,”  Nohra said.

A matter of money
$2.5 million of about a $16 million annual budget, but it's a budget that’s facing deficits. Nohra said they’re reducing staff and other expenditures, but the out-migration is making it difficult to provide the students left behind with the educational programming they need to succeed, said Liberty Board of Education President Calvin Jones.

“We can’t provide, or afford to provide, the type of education that we would want our children to receive by offering a wider choice of educational options that might be on the menu because when you don’t have the funds, something’s got to go,” Jones said.

But the April policy caused controversy in the community and nervousness at the Ohio Department of Education. So last month Jones’ board revised it, and now they reserve the right to object to any resident student who chooses to open enroll into any other district.

The objection can’t keep students from leaving, but it can keep them from taking their state funding with them, Jones said.

Not just about money
The policy change in Liberty, though, was about more than just money; it’s also about race. According to Ohio law, the district can object to future open enrollment only if it is causing a racial imbalance in the schools.

Although the definition of racial imbalance is unclear, Nohra said 50 percent of the students who attend his schools are white, and 50 percent are black, Latino, or of another ethnic group. But that 50/50 makeup is occurring in a community that is more than 80 percent white and less than 20 percent minority, according to U.S. Census data. Nohra said his district doesn’t look like his township. And every year it moves further and further away because almost all of the kids that are choosing leave are white, he said.

“We’re not looking for an all-white school, but we don’t think we should be an all-white or an all-black school because of open enrollment. Open enrollment should not be the vehicle that caused that to happen,” Nohra said.

Columbia University Professor Amy Wells said what Liberty is experiencing is happening across the country.

“When you create these choice policies, you’re much more likely to see patterns of racial and ethnic segregation emerge across schools and across district boundaries,” she said.

Jones said those racial patterns have a financial impact and an educational one, too, like the impact on a black student when they’re given the opportunity to compete with a white student in the classroom.

“Because our society imposes restrictions on nonwhite students that they are less than, but when students can see that I’ve mastered and learned at the same level as my fellow student that happens to not be brown or black, it does impart an emotional and a confidence boost to that student,” Jones said.

With policy change, Liberty Schools officials can now object to students who want to leave, and Jones said he won’t hesitate to do it, especially if that’s what it takes to protect the future of his district.