Minnesota’s K-12 open enrollment laws need improvement

Minnesota’s public school open enrollment options fall short, according to a new Reason Foundation report by Jude Schwalbach that ranked all 50 states’ K-12 open enrollment laws.

Open enrollment policies allow students and parents to access other public schools within their resident school district and/or schools in other districts outside of their resident district, which can be a great help for families whose assigned neighborhood public schools aren’t the best fit for their children.

The report analyzed every state’s open enrollment policies, identifying what each state is doing well, where each state falls short, and steps to make open enrollment more robust.

Below are the five best practices for open enrollment as identified by the Reason Foundation and Minnesota’s ranking in each. These practices “implement the hallmarks of student choice through district participation, accountability to families through transparency, and free and fair public schooling that characterize a viable open enrollment system.”

While no state currently meets every best practice, some states “still provide good models for other states to replicate,” according to Schwalbach. They include: Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Delaware and Arizona, which you can read about more in-depth here.

Minnesota’s Ranking on K-12 Open Enrollment Policies

Source: Reason Foundation

Mandatory cross-district open enrollment

Cross-district open enrollment policies (also called inter-district) allow families to enroll their children in a school located outside of their geographically assigned resident district.

Minnesota almost meets the criteria for having good policy in this area.

While state statute requires school districts in Minnesota to participate in mandatory cross-district open enrollment, the districts “are not required to post their open enrollment policies or procedures online,” according to Reason Foundation’s report. The school district can limit the enrollment of nonresident students in its schools 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.”

If more students want to open enroll in a district than available seats, student selection priority is given to “enrolling siblings of currently enrolled students, students whose applications are related to an approved integration and achievement plan, children of the school district’s staff,” and students living under unique circumstances.

In the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 10 percent of Minnesota students (86,000) open-enrolled from one school district into another, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Reason Foundation suggests policymakers could improve this option by “requir[ing] districts to post their cross-district open enrollment policies and procedures on their websites.”

Mandatory within-district open enrollment

Within-district open enrollment policies (also called intra-district) allow families to enroll their children in any school located within their assigned resident district.

Minnesota “does not have a mandatory within-district open enrollment option and districts are not required to post their available capacity on their websites,” reports the Reason Foundation. Without mandatory participation, students are at risk of exclusion “from nearby public schools with available capacity that are a better fit.”

In Minnesota, local policies adopted by the school boards determine if and when within-district options are available, according to the Minnesota Department of Education website.

Transparent reporting by the State Education Agency (SEA)

While the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) doesn’t publish “all pertinent open enrollment data,” writes the Reason Foundation, “it does collect important information, such as the number of rejected transfer applications due to a lack of capacity.”

Requiring MDE to publish additional open enrollment data, which according to the report includes the number of transfer students accepted and the reasons for the rejection of transfer student applications, would bring more transparency to this policy.

Transparent school capacity reporting

Additionally, requiring Minnesota districts to publicly report seating capacity by school and grade level would help families more effectively choose among the public schools for their children.

Clear and readily available capacity reports by all schools help families to see their options, help schools to fill their capacity, and prevent some reluctant districts from rejecting transfer student applications when seats are available.

Children have free access to all public schools

Minnesota’s open enrollment policies meet this best practice, as school districts do not charge families tuition or fees to transfer students.