Editorial: Stay the course on open-enrollment

Oregon’s experiment in open school enrollment was designed to run for five years but is now under attack as it enters its second year in operation.

House Bill 3008 would end the program in 2014 after only two years, far too soon to draw conclusions about the program. The Legislature should reject the bill and stay the course.

Open enrollment, approved in the 2011 session, allows students to transfer to another district without the permission of their home district. Because state money follows the student, a district that attracts additional students also gains funding.

Critics say some districts have benefited at others’ expense, and they believe more affluent students are in a better position to take advantage of the program because their families can provide the needed transportation.

In testimony before the House Committee on Education, Rep. Ben Unger, D-Hillsboro, said Forest Grove schools lost 68 students to the Gaston district, which openly recruited them. He said recruitment is the wrong way for a district to spend money and that the result is a two-tiered public system, one for those with the luxury of transportation and the other for those without.

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, however, defended open enrollment, saying it’s premature for the Legislature to turn its back on that experiment. He said competition among districts is not a bad thing, that it “switches the paradigm” and focuses attention on serving and attracting students. If a district is losing students, he said, it’s time to ask why and to make the school administration accountable.

We agree wholeheartedly.

McLane raised another issue, citing the open enrollment program as the result of a bipartisan legislative package from 2011 when the House was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

He said the current Democratic-controlled House shouldn’t second-guess that program after just one year. If the concern is the use of school money for advertising, McLane added, there are more direct ways to prevent that.

Whatever the politics, cutting short this experiment would be a mistake. Oregon has been working for years to provide choices to best serve the widely varied needs of individual students, and it shouldn’t stop now.