Open enrollment benefits rural schools in Minnesota districts

Open enrollment benefits rural schools in Minnesota districts

(Minn.) Open enrollment policies that allow children to attend schools outside the areas they reside has benefitted small, rural districts in Minnesota, according to an analysis of state enrollment data.

One district, St. Clair Public Schools, saw the highest percentage of open enrolled students during the 2017-18 school year, at 42 percent.

St. Clair is a rural farming community located about10 miles southeast of Mankato.

Out of the 663 students that were enrolled in St. Clair schools, 276 did not reside within the district.

District officials said that while larger districts often attract families seeking a broader selection of academic or athletic offerings, others prefer the smaller class sizes offered in rural schools.

“A lot of parents see the benefit of having a smaller environment in which to receive service,” Tom Bruels, the district’s superintendent, told the Free Press, noting that open enrollment policies allow schools to offer more educational options as more students enter the district.

Currently, 53 percent of schools in the United States are rural, according to a report released last year by the American Association of School Administrators. That study found that rural schools are often hurt by school choice policies such as private school voucher programs or interdistrict transfers because as students leave rural schools, those districts receive less state funding, which only further reduces services offered by schools.

In Minnesota, however, open enrollment in rural schools has increased over the last decade–from 9 percent in 2006-07 to 15 percent in 2016-17, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development. The Center also found there were 25,000 open enrollments in rural districts last school year, representing a 50 percent from 2016-17.

Families in Minnesota have had the option to enroll their children in a public school in a district outside of the one in which they reside since 1990. Districts can place a cap on open enrollment students depending on their capacity, and state education funding follows students in most cases.

For the St. Clair school district, open enrollment has allowed the district to operate more efficiently and offer a greater variety of programs, according to Bruels. State data show that while 61 students used open enrollment to attend schools outside the district in the 2017-18 school year, 276 transferred into the district.

Overall, more than 40 percent of the district’s enrollment is made up of students who live outside the area.

Another rural district, Cleveland Public Schools, sees many students enroll from outside district boundaries. According to state data, 30 percent of its students come from other districts, and 150 students attended Cleveland schools through open enrollment–only 72 students were lost to other districts.

Not every smaller district has fared as well, however. The Tri-City United School District, for instance, saw 557 students who lived within the district's boundaries attend schools in other districts. Only 129 students from other districts enrolled in Tri-City schools.

Larger districts in the state have largely remained unaffected, with state education data showing such districts tend to have the lowest rates of both in and out student migration.

The Free Press found that in the three area districts with the largest number of students—Mankato, St. Peter and New Ulm—the percentage of students open enrolling out of their district was essentially offset by those enrolling into the district.

In both Mankato and New Ulm, 4 percent of students living within district boundaries enrolled in other districts, but 4 percent of total enrollment in both districts was represented by students enrolling form outside districts. For the St. Peter school district, the difference between the percent of students entering or leaving the district was just 1 percent–with slightly more students choosing to enroll elsewhere. more