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Open Enrollment May Be Segregating Ohio's Public Schools

Liberty Local Schools
Libertal Local Board of Education in Youngstown says that open enrollment has segregated its schools and cost it millions in funding.

Of the 600-plus public school districts in Ohio, more than three-quarters have open enrollment policies. That means they accept and educate students who live outside of their district boundaries.

Open enrollment was implemented by state lawmakers nearly 30 years ago to increase options for parents and students, an early example of school choice, but for some districts, it’s creating financial hardship and new instances of segregation.

Stopping The Flow of Students

On a Monday evening, members of the Liberty Local Board of Education gathered in an upstairs room of the district’s high school and gaveled in for their monthly meeting. On the agenda-- the revision of a policy first approved by the board in April.

The original resolution, while more technical in its language, said basically this: white students who live in the Liberty Local School District would no longer be allowed to open enroll into Girard City Schools.

Girard is a neighboring school district. Both are suburbs of Youngstown, both have open enrollment.

“They are doing everything they can to get our children to go to their school district,” Liberty Superintendent Joe Nohra said. “They take 100 of our kids!”

In his district of 1,100 students, about 100 choose to enroll in Girard, but another 350 also leave for other public school districts, charters, or use vouchers to attend private schools. For every student that leaves for a publicly funded option, the district has to give up the state money that helps pay for their education, about $6,100 each.

“Our tuition out, which includes all open enrollment, every dollar that gets deducted is over $2.5 million,” Nohra said.

That’s about 15 percent of the district’s $16 million annual budget, but the budget shows out-year deficits.

Nohra said they’re reducing staff and other expenditures, but Liberty Board of Education president Calvin Jones said the outmigration is making it difficult to provide the students left behind with the educational programming they need to succeed.

“We can’t provide or afford to provide the type of education that we would want our children to receive by offering a wider choice of educational options because when you don’t have the funds something’s got to go,” Jones said.

Liberty Removes Race From Resolution

To combat that financial problem, Jones’ board in July took advantage of a line in state law that allows them to object to the exodus of resident students.

That’s what the board was attempting to do with its April resolution, but there was concern from both the community and the Ohio Department of Education over the language, which singled out one race and one district.

“I know ODE is nervous about the original resolution we passed,” Nohra said. “ODE’s lead counsel called us because you can’t just cite one race in leaving. Stick to the law.”

At its July meeting, the board revised that policy. Now, it says they reserve the right to object to any resident student who chooses to open enroll into any other district. The objection can’t keep students from leaving, Jones explained, but it can keep them from taking their state funding with them.

“They can go to a neighboring school district, but the money stays here,” Jones said.

Beyond The Finances

But the policy change in Liberty is about more than just money. It’s also about race.

According to Ohio law, the district can object to future open enrollment only if it is causing a racial imbalance in the schools.

A “racial imbalance” isn’t clearly defined in the state’s open enrollment law, though, so Norah couldn’t say whether his district met the legal requirements, but he did point to the mismatch in the racial makeup of his district when compared to his community.

Fifty percent of the students who attend Liberty schools are white and 50 percent are black, Latino, or of another ethnic group. But that 50/50 makeup is occurring in a community that is more than 80 percent white and less than 20 percent minority, according to U.S. Census data.

Nohra said his district doesn’t look like his township, and every year it moves further and further away because almost all of the kids who are choosing to leave are white.

“We’re not looking for an all-white school, but we don’t think we should be an all-white or an all-black school because of open enrollment,” Nohra explained. “Open enrollment should not be the vehicle that caused that to happen.”

Racial Makeup Of Schools

Columbia University professor Amy Stuart Wells said she’s not surprised Nohra has noticed the trend in his district.

Her work focuses on the intersection of education and race and she said across the country open enrollment policies affect the racial makeup of schools.

“When you create these choice policies,” Wells explained, “you’re much more likely to see patterns of racial and ethnic segregation emerge across schools and across district boundaries.”

But some superintendents disagree, like Geno Thomas of Lowellville Local Schools, also near Youngstown. Thomas has worked in urban, suburban and rural school districts in Ohio, all with open enrollment policies.

“Coming from three different districts, one in Mansfield City Schools, one in Valley Local Schools and now in Lowellville Local Schools, open enrollment and the policies there all cause different phenomena,” Thomas said.

In Mansfield, Thomas watched as a large number of students chose to leave the district, while at Valley, he said many chose to come in, largely because of their athletic programs.

With a total K-12 enrollment of less than 600 students, and with more than half of those kids coming from outside of the district boundaries, Thomas said rural Lowellville has benefited immensely from open enrollment. 

The already-majority-white district has maintained its racial balance, Thomas said, and ODE numbers show the number of white students has remained largely the same even as district enrollment has shifted to nearly 55 percent open enrollment students.

Impact In The Classroom

Liberty officials say they’re adjusting financially, but Jones said there are things you can’t adjust for, like the impact on a black student when they’re given the opportunity to compete with a white student in the classroom.

“Our society imposes restrictions, whether passively or overtly, on nonwhite students that they are less than,” he said, “but when students can see that, ‘I’ve mastered and learned at the same level as my fellow student that happens to not be brown or black,’ it does impart an emotional and a confidence boost to that student.”

A confidence boost that will last well into their professional lives, he added.

With the change in policy, Liberty School officials can now object to students who want to leave, and Jones said he won’t hesitate to do it, especially if that’s what it takes to protect the future of his district and his community.

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.