Do open enrollment laws and charter schools ‘steal’ students from district schools?

The most vocal opponents of the school choice movement argue that charter schools and open enrollment laws are robbing traditional public schools of students.

But according to Robert Wedl, former Minnesota commissioner of education and deputy commissioner, this accusation is misplaced because, well, school districts don’t have children to steal in the first place. He writes in the Star Tribune:

What apparently is not fully understood is that Minnesota laws enacted in the 1980s relating to open enrollment, postsecondary enrollment options and area learning centers, and the state’s 1991 charter school law, significantly changed the education paradigm. Before these enactments, districts did indeed, in a sense, have kids—as they, not parents, decided which schools students would attend. But the laws of the ‘80s and ‘90s changed all that.

Under those laws, parents, not districts, decide where children will go to school. Yet the media and some district leaders and advocates continue to report the number of students that chartered schools have somehow “taken” from districts.

This leads to an important point. Anti-choice advocates resort to placing blame on the charter schools themselves, not the families who choose these schools. Doing so would mean attacking many low-income families and families of color who flee their neighborhood schools because their children are not getting the quality education they deserve. “As a lifelong educator, I have never heard of a parent removing a child from a school that he or she believed was serving that child well,” Wedl continues.

This discussion appears to be less about how to better educate children than it is about money. In Minnesota, revenue follows students to the schools they attend. The argument against chartering and open enrollment is that the state should prevent parents from sending their children (and accompanying state dollars) to the schools they want and rather require them to send their children to the schools they do not want.

Enrollment declines in traditional districts can lead to pressure on those districts to downsize, but it is ridiculous to argue that students should not access a more suitable learning environment just so that current spending stays the same. We need to trust parents and the choices they make and not demonize the schools that pick up the slack when traditional school districts fall short.