Policy Documents

Students benefit from Expanded Open Enrollment

Deborah D. Thornton –
January 1, 2011


Open enrollment is a common occurrence in Iowa’s school districts. Since first authorized 20 years ago in the 1989-90 school year, open enrollment has grown from 2,757 students to almost 25,000 statewide. For the 2009-2010 school year, the largest numbers of students whose parents chose open enrollment were in either the largest districts — those with over 7,500 total students, or the smallest districts. The largest districts had a net loss of 2,600 students, the smallest a net loss of 832. All districts over 7,500 had a net loss.1 The reasons for choosing open enrollment probably center on too few students and a resulting lack of opportunity at the tiny districts, and conversely, too many students resulting in the same lack of opportunity at the largest districts. So the parents and students chose their best option.2


Under open enrollment, the state education money follows the student. For the 2010-2011 school year, it is $5,768 per student, plus textbook, special education, and transportation money.

3 For students choosing to enroll in accredited nonpublic schools, textbook and transportation money already follows them. The fact that the money follows the student is a well-established and legal policy.  

There are 182 accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa. These schools have to follow the exact same educational requirements as the public schools, including Iowa Core Curriculum, discrimination, cultural awareness, wellness, bullying, and teacher certification laws.

4 Accredited nonpublic schools award a diploma, the same as a public school. Students compete against public schools in athletics. Therefore, the State of Iowa has already determined that these schools are legally acceptable options. The only difference is that the parent must write tuition checks, in addition to the school taxes they already pay.  

Though the total cost of educating students has gone up each year, student achievement has not.

5 Achievement as measured on standardized tests has flatlined for many years and the high school graduation rate is only 87 percent. Reading, writing, and math scores for low-income and minority students have resisted all attempts at increase, across all grade levels. On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), 80 percent of all fourth-grade Iowan students were "proficient" in 2009-2010. Only 63 percent of Hispanic and 55 percent of African American students were proficient. Only 67 percent of low-income students were proficient compared to 87 of higher-income students.6 The educational needs of these students are not being met.