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Minnesota should pursue more transparency in open enrollment, think tank says

(The Center Square) – Like nearly half of states, Minnesota allows children free access to all public schools, according to a Reason Foundation study released last week.

Yet the state still has some work to do if it wants to support students through open-enrollment policies, according to the study, “Public schools without boundaries: Ranking every state’s K-12 open enrollment policies.”

Minnesota fails in four of the five best practices for open enrollment.

Reason supports mandatory cross-district and within-district open enrollment. To the Foundation’s goal for these policies, school districts should only reject transfer student requests for limited reasons, like school capacity, and the policies, including applicable deadlines and application procedures, must be posted online on districts’ websites. The public policy research organization seeks transparent reporting by the State Education Agency; transparent school capacity reporting; and free access to all public schools. To meet Reason’s criteria, the SEA must annually collect and publicly report open enrollment data by school district, like transfer students accepted and applications rejected and reasons for rejections. To meet Reason’s Transparent School Capacity Reporting practice, districts must annually, publicly report seating capacity by school and grade level.

Nearly one in 10 Minnesota students used the state’s cross-district option during the 2020-2021 school year, the report said. Minnesota school districts must participate in mandatory cross-district open enrollment, but they don’t have to participate in within-district open enrollment.

The school districts don’t have to post online their open enrollment policies or procedures or their available capacity.

“A school district can limit the number of transfer students to a ‘number not less than the lesser of: one percent of the total enrollment at each grade level in the district; or the number of district residents at that grade level enrolled in a nonresident district,’” the report said, citing state law.

Minnesota districts must prioritize enrolling siblings of currently enrolled students, students whose applications are related to an approved integration and achievement plan, children of school district staff and students who live under unique circumstances, the report said.

“While the SEA does not publish all pertinent open enrollment data, it does collect important information, such as the number of rejected transfer applications due to a lack of capacity,” the report said.

Reason recommends Minnesota policymakers require school districts to establish mandatory within-district open enrollment policies and post open enrollment policies and procedures online. Minnesota should also require the SEA to publish pertinent open enrollment data.

Across the country, SEAs’ publication of enrollment data would help ensure districts solely reject transfer students for valid reasons, making it harder to discriminate against students the districts deem “undesirable,” the report said.

“In some cases, districts don’t always make decisions based on what’s best for kids when there is no state accountability,” the report said.

Iowa solely requires cross-district open enrollment. Nebraska requires capacity reporting and no tuition.

Missouri, South Dakota and Illinois don’t have any of the five recommended policies. Five states – Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah, and Arizona – scored four of five; no state was five of five.

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