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Why Isn’t Open Enrollment More Open in Mississippi?

kids-raising-hands-class

While the Coronavirus is a major concern for people around the state just now, it’s not the only one. A video of the school board meeting in the Alcorn School District last week records one parent saying, “Our whole nation is hurting right now . . . don’t give these parents over here more stuff to stress over. I think we’ve got enough on our plate right now.” Another asked, “With this decision today, do you realize how many families are more worried about your vote than they are the Coronavirus?”

They were pleading with the board not to renege on their decades-old policy of allowing students residentially assigned to schools in Alcorn to enroll in the neighboring Corinth School District.

The proposed policy change would have required parents to apply for transfer approval annually instead of one time. Consideration by the board would have required “exceptional circumstances,” which could not include transfer requests made “for the sake of convenience or due to a sibling having transferred.”

After parent pleas, the policy change failed with a vote of 3-2. But not before one supportive board member stated with finality, “You’re going to have to decide where you live based on your school district.”

Open enrollment, or the ability to attend a traditional public school different from one’s assigned school, does exist in Mississippi, though in a limited form. Opponents of open enrollment often tout public schools’ mandate to serve everyone, yet residential assignment shuts the doors of public schools to students who may live only a block or two away. Unfortunately, this policy also sometimes plays out as an income-based assignment, relegating some to failing schools and others to schools they would not otherwise choose.

State law allows any student to apply for a transfer to another district by submitting a request to his or her local school board. Once approved, the request moves to the school board of the receiving school district for approval. In other words, a student may only transfer to another school district if both the sending and receiving school boards agree.

In practice, some Mississippi districts form agreements with a nearby district or a district consortium, while others choose not to approve any student transfers or review requests on a case-by-case basis.

Whether students have this option depends entirely on the school board of their home school district.

For parents, requiring double approval makes little sense when another school district is willing and able to serve their child. They wonder why the school board of the district they live in has the right to reject their request, denying them a choice that may work better for their student. One parent voiced this concern, asking, “How can y’all determine what’s best for my kid? It just blows my mind.”

It’s true state funds for that student shift to their new school, but their home school district is also no longer responsible for providing them an education. The power of refusal for home school districts encourages board decisions to be made based on dollar amounts rather than student success.

A bill introduced in the Senate this session would have removed this barrier. The bill died in committee without consideration, but as parents like those in Alcorn continue to speak up, Mississippi will be forced to question why state law limits open enrollment for no good reason.