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Kansas school leaders say the shift to open enrollment next fall won't be simple or easy

 First-grade teacher Heather Mock leads a reading lesson at Washington Elementary School in Wichita.
Suzanne Perez
First-grade teacher Heather Mock leads a reading lesson at Washington Elementary School in Wichita.

Kansas public school leaders in some high-demand districts say they’re already hearing from families who want to switch schools to take advantage of a new open enrollment law. But the new law won’t be simple, and they’re not ready to just throw open their doors.

WICHITA, Kansas — A new state law that goes into effect next fall lets Kansas students attend schools outside the districts where they live, as long as there is space available.

School leaders in some high-demand districts say they’re already hearing from families who want to enroll. But they say the new law won’t be simple, and they’re not ready to just throw open their doors.

“We were getting calls in July of ’22 saying, ‘Hey, I heard this passed. Sign me up. I’m ready to come,’” said Brett White, superintendent of the Andover school district east of Wichita.

“But there’s lots of behind-the-scenes work going on as we think through those processes,” he said. “It’s a lot to develop, and it’s going to really consume our next few months.”

Kansas lawmakers passed House Bill 2567 last year. It included funding for the state’s K-12 schools as well as controversial policy measures such as the open enrollment provision.

Conservatives who pushed for the law see it as a way to help families move their kids out of local schools that aren’t meeting their needs. It echoes laws in more than two dozen other states where public school transfers are seen as a hallmark of school choice.

Public school leaders who opposed open enrollment say the change complicates the already challenging process of forecasting student numbers and making sure there are enough teachers and classrooms to serve them.

“To not have certainty based in part on the geography of our school boundaries about how many students we will have — that makes long-term planning very difficult,” said Jeff Jarman, a school board member for the Maize district west of Wichita.

“It’s really important … that we carefully consider future growth. It is not fair to our taxpayers to allow students from out of the district, who are not paying property tax, to come in and potentially take seats.”

Maize and Andover schools, like those in Johnson County, are viewed by many as desirable alternatives to larger urban districts such as Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. Real estate listings praise the districts, many of which continue to grow while the state’s overall enrollment has declined. Suburban districts also tend to have higher tax rates than their urban counterparts.

The open enrollment law requires districts to have a policy in place by Jan. 1 that establishes their process for deciding how many nonresident students they’ll accept. By May 1, districts will have to declare the number of open seats at each grade level and will publish them on their websites by June 1.

Maize’s new nonresident enrollment policy directs the superintendent or a designee — likely each principal — to make that call for each grade level in kindergarten through eighth grade, based on student-teacher ratios, predicted growth and classroom capacity.

For high school, capacity will be determined by student-teacher ratios for each building.

Jarman, the Maize board member, said districts should be conservative with their number of open seats to prevent a scramble for more teachers or classroom space this year or years down the line.

“The problem is allowing elementary students to attend, and then three or four years later, when they’re in intermediate or middle school, we might have created a crisis in those buildings based on something that happened years earlier,” he said. “So caution is the strategy we must employ.”

If districts have seats available and get more applications than open slots, they’ll hold a lottery to randomly select students by mid-July.

White, the Andover superintendent, said his staff has to develop new systems and processes for handling applications, selecting students and communicating with families. And it’s all supposed to happen over the summer months.

“That’s when our schools are kind of shut down and counselors aren’t even on duty, so the timing of that whole thing is terrible,” White said.

About 20,000 Kansas students currently attend schools outside the district where they live. Most districts accept at least some special transfers, such as the children of district employees who live outside the district.

The new open enrollment law doesn’t require districts to provide transportation for out-of-district students. And it doesn’t force them to accept any new students if they decide their classrooms are too full.

But White said lawmakers will be watching the numbers and how districts handle out-of-district requests.

“We need to comply with the spirit and the intent of the law, because otherwise, my concern would be the Legislature saying, ‘Hey, we kind of left it up to districts, but … now we’re just going to take that over,’” White said.

Some school officials worry the new law could lead to widespread athletic transfers. The Kansas State High School Activities Association rules say that if a student plays a varsity sport at one school, he or she can’t play that same sport at a different school for a full calendar year.

But officials say that won’t prevent freshmen from applying to a high school based primarily on its sports program.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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