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Suburban school officials predict ‘chaos’ if Kansas lets out-of-district students transfer freely

A teacher leading a class of students sitting in front of the their laptops.
Suzanne Perez
Substitute teacher Serle McNeil leads an algebra class at Andover High School. Andover leaders say opening enrollment to out-of-district students would strain the district's resources.

Conservatives say the plan would give families stuck in failing school districts a chance at a life-changing escape. But school administrators fear a flood of students they’re not prepared for and who come with needs they can’t afford to accommodate.

WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas stands on the verge of letting students attend any public school — regardless of where they live.

Conservatives love the plan. They say it would give poor families stuck in failing school districts a chance at a life-changing escape.

But school administrators running well-heeled suburban districts already are taking measures to demonstrate their classrooms are full — the one exception the proposed change would allow from barring students who want to transfer into a district they don’t live in.

They say they have little choice if they’re going to protect their taxpayers from the cost of teaching a flood of students they’re not prepared for and who come with needs they can’t afford to accommodate.

“We believe in neighborhood schools,” said Brett White, superintendent of Andover schools east of Wichita. “The open borders would just throw into chaos what's an established policy.”

Open enrollment proposals passed in both the Kansas House and Senate before lawmakers left for their spring break this month. They echo measures in more than two dozen other states where public school transfers are seen as a hallmark of school choice.

If a compromise bill is approved, here’s how it likely would work:

By January 2023, every Kansas school district would be required to establish enrollment capacity limits by grade level and school building. By May 1, districts would determine the number of open seats at each grade level and would publish them by June 1.

Students could apply to districts outside their residential area — if the other district has space. If there are more requests than open seats, districts would use a random lottery to fill them. In October, the process would begin again for the spring semester.

That allows school districts to determine their own enrollment and capacity levels — and to go on record saying they can’t take in more students.

“They would determine if there was any room at the inn,” said Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Districts wouldn’t have to accept students with histories of absenteeism, suspensions or expulsions. But they could not deny students based on a disability or special-education status.

The state’s portion of education funding would follow the student to the new district.

Republican Rep. Sean Tarwater, a member of the House K-12 Budget Committee who supports open enrollment, said boundaries based on a student’s address create academic segregation.

“One of the things that we hear is … ‘Why doesn’t the student just move into a better district if they want a better school?’ Unfortunately, homes or apartments in some of the better districts are unattainable for most of the families that live in the districts that might be failing,” Tarwater said. “This bill simply allows those children to have a choice and a chance.”

Supporters point to declining test scores as evidence of struggling districts — and the nearby schools they might flee to.

In Kansas City, Kansas, for instance, more than two-thirds of students scored below grade level in math last spring. In nearby Blue Valley, only 16% scored below grade level — half the state average.

At Heights High School in northeast Wichita, more than 72% of students scored below grade level in math. At Andover Central High School, about 15 miles away in a different district, only 22% scored below grade level.

But the open enrollment proposal doesn’t require districts to provide transportation for transfer students. So opponents say only wealthier parents will take advantage of the option, snagging any available spots in high-achieving districts because they can afford to drive their kids to school.

That could leave struggling urban districts in even worse shape, critics say, with a greater percentage of high-need students and less state funding.

“This bill creates two tiers,” said Sen. Cindy Holsher, a Democrat from Overland Park. “We have children (whose) parents have the means to get them maybe an hour away to another school. But there are a number of children in districts who don’t have that advantage.”

Many suburban superintendents oppose open enrollment in part because they say local taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize out-of-district students.

“Blue Valley is among the highest-performing districts in Kansas — indeed competing nationally — and, as such, would find our districts overwhelmed with requests from non-residents,” Blue Valley Superintendent Tonya Merrigan said in written testimony to the Senate Education Committee.

“Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth.”

In Andover, some residents complained on social media that an influx of outside students would increase traffic and pollution and deteriorate the district’s sense of community.

Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, called those arguments elitist.

“Based on what the superintendents said, I think it’s very clear,” Erickson said. “‘We want our high socioeconomic status to remain. We’re born on third and think we hit a triple, and we don’t want anyone interfering with that.’”

Under the House bill, districts would get to define the term “capacity” and set their own capacity limits. The Kansas State Board of Education would audit only one district each year to determine whether they complied with the law.

About 20,000 Kansas students currently attend schools outside their district. More than 90% of districts reported accepting at least some out-of-district students. Andover, for example, allows children of full-time district employees to enroll in Andover schools regardless of where they live.

White, the Andover superintendent, said open enrollment would be a logistical nightmare. He said it’s hard enough to predict enrollment trends within his district, which has grown steadily for the past decade.

Setting new capacity guidelines, handling applications and then readjusting for latecomers — possibly having to hire additional teachers just before school starts — would be an unnecessary burden, White said.

“We have a system that works,” he said. “Why would Topeka want to create a whole new bureaucracy for us at the local level?”

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 KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW 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.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.