PORTLAND — A new state law that makes it easier for Oregon kids to transfer to a different district has resulted in hundreds of students seeking a change of scenery, but apparently no major shift in the educational landscape — at least not yet.
The Oregon Department of Education is not tracking how many students have been accepted into new districts, making it difficult to measure the statewide effect. Some of Oregon’s 197 school districts — including Portland, the state’s largest — opted to take a wait-and-see approach and declined to participate in the “open enrollment” law. Many of the districts that opened transfer slots for incoming students had scores of spaces go unfilled.
Also complicating the picture is that the students who have sought to transfer during the spring sign-up period may have a change of heart by fall.
“We’ve got these students who’ve put their name down on paper, but how many will actually show up and attend school here in September?” said Tony Scurto, superintendent of the Pleasant Hill School District, near Eugene. “We’ve all got to play that little guessing game.”
The state Legislature approved the open-enrollment law last year. It’s a five-year experiment scheduled to end in 2017.
Oregon had already allowed students to transfer to another district, but a student needed to gain the approval of both the student’s home district and the district the student wanted to attend. Under the new rule, students only need the permission of the receiving district, so a home district can’t deny a student in an effort to preserve the $6,000 in annual school funding that follows each child.
Supporters of the law said it would give children and parents greater choice and prompt schools to either improve or risk losing students and state money. A concern was that kids from small school districts would transfer to districts that offer more programs and electives, creating a downward spiral in which the small schools would lose more money, cut additional programs and then see another exodus of students.
“It’s too early to say anything about its impact,” said Ben Cannon, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s education adviser.
But it’s not too early to see that some school districts, both large and small, embraced open enrollment as an opportunity to reverse unrelenting enrollment declines. Districts from Ashland to Eugene to the Portland suburbs combined to offer thousands of slots in hopes of adding students.
As some districts add students, however, others lose. The Lowell School District, just southeast of Pleasant Hill, lost 33 students during the open-enrollment period, though the majority attend private school or are home-schooled, so the district won’t lose any money on those children. Still the loss of any student is not easy for a district that, like most in Oregon, is dealing with stagnant school funding.
Despite the losses, school board chairwoman Suzanne Kintzley said she is a supporter of open enrollment because the district can focus on the families who choose to attend Lowell schools.
“Everyone’s got their own reason for wanting to leave,” she said. “It’s change. Some kids need a different stage.”