by Anthony Hennen


In Pennsylvania, like much of America, parents will struggle if they want to transfer their children from one public school to another.

In a new policy brief, the Reason Foundation found that only 11 states have mandatory open enrollment laws to let parents transfer children to another public school. Furthermore, if families do switch schools, 26 states let public schools charge tuition for transfer students, making it harder for poorer families to choose a different school.

“School district boundaries often serve as barriers to better education options for many families,” Reason Policy analyst Jude Schwalbach wrote. “Residential assignment can have long-term ramifications for students, even after they graduate from high school.”

Schwalbach argues for open enrollment policies in every state, saying they provide “a solution for families assigned to public schools that aren’t a good fit for their children” and would let children transfer to “any public school so long as it has open seats.” Though open enrollment is an option in 43 states in some form, only 11 mandate it.

Pennsylvania remains unfriendly ground for open enrollment. While transfers don’t get charged tuition like some other states, it lags on mandatory open enrollment policies and lacks transparent reporting. In some ways, it pits school districts against each other.

“In Pennsylvania, voluntary cross-district open enrollment may occur with the permission of the receiving district so long as it is more convenient for the transfer student. However, transfer students must live at least 1.5 miles or more from their assigned school,” Schwalbach wrote. “When a cross-district transfer is considered convenient, the sending district must pay the receiving district the cost of tuition. Voluntary within-district transfers are permitted so long as parents can show good cause to the school board, which can reassign the transfer student to any other school in the district.”

To improve, Schwalbach advocates states like Pennsylvania mandate open enrollment policies to allow families to switch schools and require schools to publicly disclose data on transfers.

When the public doesn’t have basic information on transfers or districts can avoid allowing transfers, families get stuck in schools with which they’re dissatisfied.

“These policies create mammoth barriers for students, especially disadvantaged ones whose families cannot afford tuition or transportation costs,” Schwalbach wrote. “Consequently, robust open enrollment laws must include provisions that hold districts accountable to families.”

Pennsylvania’s performance mirrored most of its neighbors, which lacked mandatory open enrollment or prohibited tuition charges. However, Delaware stood out for having mandatory open enrollment that gave families choice for school and didn’t allow tuition charges – about 15% of families moved their children to a different school.

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Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.
Photo “Students” by Philadelphia Public Schools.