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FOX 11 Investigates: Impact of open enrollment on school districts

FOX 11 Investigates Open Enrollment (WLUK)

(WLUK) -- For 20 years, parents in Wisconsin have had the opportunity to send their kids to the public school of their choice. It's called open enrollment

The idea behind open enrollment is simple: If you want your child to attend a school district outside the one you live in, you can apply for open enrollment. You don't need a reason.

"It was very, very simple," said Green Bay resident Danielle Jackson.

She says before her three children were born, she moved into the Ashwaubenon school district specifically for education. When she moved out of the district and in to Green Bay a few years later, she decided to use open enrollment to keep her kids in Ashwaubenon.

"They liked Ashwaubenon," Jackson said. "That's where they were established. That's where their friends were. I loved the school district so we made the option to open enroll and keep them in Ashwaubenon."

Statewide, 48% percent of the applications last year were approved by the new district. The state says most of the denials are from districts that don't have room for more students.

Open enrollment has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. In its first year, just 2,464 students took part in the program. Last year, there were 58,347 students.

Green Bay is one of the districts that loses students to open enrollment. Last school year, Green Bay had a net loss of 1,680 students to 29 school districts. That is approximately 8% of the district's enrollment.

  • Click here to see open enrollment data for your school district

FOX 11 Investigates sat down with Green Bay schools superintendent Michelle Langenfeld and school board president Brenda Warren to talk about that.

"Open enrollment has afforded all of us to look deeply into what students need. The cookie cutter approach is not okay. We're at a very different age and time," Langenfeld said.

Langenfeld says the issue is about more than just the numbers.

"What does it mean? How did we get here? And what are we going to do differently?" Langenfeld added.

Open enrollment does have a financial impact. Under state law, districts can collect a set amount of money for each student who lives in their district. When a student who leaves for another district, a portion of that tax revenue is transferred to the new district. But not all of it.

In Green Bay for example, last year, about $11 million was transferred to other school districts. But Green Bay kept approximately $4.5 million.

District leaders say that excess money is added to the district's budget to help pay for operations.

"The Legislature, I believe, really intended to ensure that there is stability in a school district and at the same time, afford parents’ choice," Langenfeld said.

So far, Warren says the impact has been manageable.

"It really hasn't significantly impacted our ability to provide education for the students that we have except for if we start to have a declining enrollment. That's where it will impact the students that are here," Warren said.

Warren says since state funding is tied to enrollment, the district would lose some funding if enrollment goes down.

Green Bay is not the only district with a net loss of students.

In our area, West De Pere and Kaukauna also lost students to open enrollment.

"I think we're hearing across the state that this is a concern that we should all attend to," Langenfeld said.

But open enrollment is a two-way street. There are also districts gaining students.

Last year, Appleton, De Pere and Howard-Suamico all gained students through open enrollment.

Then there's Ashwaubenon, where 30% of the students come from outside the district.

Brian Hanes is the superintendent in Ashwaubenon.

When asked what the Ashwaubenon School District would look like if it weren't for open enrollment, Hanes replied, "Ashwaubenon would be a school district of about 2,000. You know, we would be down-sized."

The million-dollar question is why are parents choosing open enrollment?

"I want to know the why. It's kind of important to us like any business to know the why. It's for a variety of reasons. There's a thread there of academic pride and high expectations," Hanes said.

Danielle Jackson says she opted to use open enrollment simply to keep her kids in the district they had started in.

"I think because my kids were already established there, they didn't want to switch," Jackson said.

Another parent told FOX 11 in a message that she used open enrollment to leave Green Bay because she was not satisfied with the way the district handled a situation with her child.

The parent wrote that the school "...wouldn’t do anything..." so she "...put them in Ashwaubenon. And they love it..."

The issue of open enrollment is one of the things that prompted Rhonda Sitnikau to get involved with the district.

"I'm not satisfied with what's happening," Sitnikau told FOX 11 Investigates.

Sitnikau was appointed to an open seat on the school board in November. She was then elected in April.

"I think right now, with the amount of choices that families have in regard to education, we need to be doing everything that we can to make sure that we're taking care of them," Sitnikau said.

Warren, the school board president, says the district conducted an internal review of open enrollment 10 years ago.

"There are many, many, many different reasons why people do it. Some it's convenience. Some it's perception. Some it's customer service. It's all over to the map," Warren said.

The district is planning to do that again Langenfeld says this time, the district is planning to spend about $20,000 to hire an outside firm to find out why students are leaving.

That will include exit interviews, a marketing strategy and an assessment of needs.

"My first priority is to find out why people think Green Bay schools isn't a good place for their child," Warren said.

District leaders say 62% of the students who open enroll out of Green Bay have never attended a Green Bay public school.

"Until we know and ask some tough questions of our families to have that information, I look forward to having this conversation again with you when we have the data," Langenfeld said.

Langenfeld also says the district will be examining the issue this summer but she doesn't expect any major changes to occur right away. She says one thing the district plans to do is step up its marketing efforts.

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