Open-enrollment bill would allow students to attend any public school across S.C.

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Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 6:41 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In most school districts in South Carolina, students only have one option for which public school they attend: the one for which they are zoned, based on where they live.

But lawmakers at the State House are considering a bill that would allow students to attend any public school in the state, regardless of their home address.

Right now, some school districts across the state offer intradistrict open enrollment, letting students who live in that district enroll in any of its public schools, including those outside their zone.

H.3843 would apply that to every district in South Carolina, but it would also allow students to attend public schools outside the district where they live, giving the state’s students more options than they have ever had.

For example, students in Columbia could attend school in Myrtle Beach, and children living in Charleston could enroll in Greenville.

But supporters say it is likelier to be taken up by students interested in a program outside the school where they are zoned or by parents who live in one district but work in another.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox for our parents to have choices, and children should be able to learn in the area that best suits their needs,” Rep. Shannon Erickson, R – Beaufort and chair of the House Education and Public Works Committee, said. Erickson is the lead sponsor of H.3843.

This open enrollment bill is another form of school choice with support at the State House.

But as opposed to the more controversial school voucher bill that recently passed the Senate and now awaits a hearing in the House, Erickson’s bill also has the backing of at least one teacher advocacy group.

“Any mechanism of choice needs to meet three criteria: It’s got to be affordable, accessible, and accountable, and an open enrollment bill that allows students increased access to public-schooling options is the truest and purest form of educational choice,” Patrick Kelly of Palmetto State Teachers Association said, saying this bill meets those criteria.

Students who are zoned for a particular school would still be guaranteed a spot there, as would returning students.

Schools with more demand than space would give priority to students based on criteria including those who already have a sibling attending or whose parents work at that school, then a lottery would determine who else can attend.

Regarding prioritization, the bill explicitly states, “The policies must not have the purpose or effect of causing racial segregation in a school or the school district.”

Schools could provide transportation to students living outside their zone, but they would not be required to.

“We don’t define it because it’s not a one-size-fits-all because that would defeat the purpose, but they can figure out how that best fits,” Erickson said.

Kelly said without adequate transportation, many families would not be able to fully take advantage of open enrollment possibilities.

But he noted PSTA would not support an unfunded mandate from the state for districts to provide transportation.

“It could be building out actual public transportation options in South Carolina,” he said. “It could also be affording families with some sort of financial ability to pay for private transportation.”

The bill advanced out of an Education and Public Works subcommittee this week, but some lawmakers said they still have concerns about unintended consequences.

“What I can see happening is that fact that kids are going to leave school districts, particularly school districts that don’t have a lot of offer, and go to another school district, and what becomes of that [first] school district?” Rep. Terry Alexander, D – Florence, said.

Public schools operate off a combination of federal, state, and local funding, with the local money coming from the property taxes of people who live in that district.

This bill would keep those local dollars in that district, even if students enroll in schools outside of where they live, and public schools could charge a fee to nonresident students, similar to tuition, to offset not receiving that money.

State and federal funding are based on enrollment numbers.

“If enrollment declines in one school and increases in another, then yes, more state and federal funds flow to the school with the higher enrollment. But that also means the school has a lower enrollment, to begin with,” Kelly said.

A similar Senate version of this bill has been filed by Sen. Dwight Loftis, R – Greenville, but has not yet gotten a hearing.

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