Question 4: Open enrollment policy in Wisconsin continues to expand the opportunities for students to attend public school out of their resident district. What, if anything, would you do to encourage your fellow board members to take advantage of this opportunity to increase district enrollment and revenue? (Published on page 8 of the February 27th issue of the Evansville Review).
Public education in Wisconsin has undergone a revolution in the last decade and now includes virtual schools, charter schools, voucher programs and open enrollment in addition to traditional brick and mortar options. Many of us who were educated more than twenty years ago struggle to keep informed of these modern educational concepts so we may best provide for our own children’s education. Folks might already know that Wisconsin families can apply to send their children to any public school district through open enrollment during a narrow time frame in February. The legislature recently expanded open enrollment opportunities to year-round for parents who apply and cite “the best interests of the child” on their petition to attend a non-resident district. The state aid portion of the per-pupil revenue becomes portable and follows students to their new district. The dollar amount changes annually and is based on state aid calculations. This year, each student attending a non-resident district brings with them $6447 in revenue to the new district, which is paid for by the resident district. Open enrollment presents an opportunity for the Evansville Community School District (ECSD) to decrease next year’s potential $750,000 shortfall in a student friendly way that helps preserve programs and teachers.
District business manager Doreen Treuden presented this steep deficit scenario to the board in January. The loss is predicated on a number of realistic assumptions: 3% salary increase, 8% benefit increase and 1-2% increases in all other areas. It also presumes that open enrollment figures for the ECSD will remain stable at the current levels of eighty-five resident students enrolled out of the district and 42 non-resident students enrolled in. Enrollment out has increased 37% since last year and 77% since 2006-2007. The number of non-residents enrolling into ECSD has not changed significantly in the same time frame, causing the net loss of students through open enrollment to increase from 3 to 43 in six years. The net loss exceeded the number enrolling into the district for the first time this year. These trends suggest that the net loss due to open enrollment will not remain stable but rather increase. If they do remain stable and if we presume a constant value for per-pupil state aid allocation, that imbalance of 43 students contributes over $277,000 to the projected 2013-2014 deficit, or 37% of the total.
A review of historical budget documents on the district website indicates that the deficit attributable to open enrollment has nearly quadrupled from about $78,000 in 2006 to about $280,000 this year. The cumulative funding lost since 2006 amounts to $838,315. Governor Walker’s next biennium budget calls for a freeze on the public school revenue cap, which further increases next year’s ECSD projected deficit to an eerily similar value of $840,000. The board has asked administration to explore this issue in depth on more than one occasion over the years. Last summer the board was provided with data that indicated the net loss of students due to open enrollment was projected to double this year and since the legislative expansion of the program enabled students to enroll out at any time, the numbers could get even worse. At that point, the board directed the new district administrator Mr. Jerry Roth to track open enrollment twice a year and report back to them with his findings. On February 11, the board was apprised of updated figures for this year which showed that the number out went up by two and the number in went down by two, further exacerbating the situation. Board President Kathi Swanson’s reaction to the news was to urge her fellow board members, “to find a way to keep over a quarter of a million dollars in revenue from walking out our doors.” In response to the board’s inquires over the years, the administration has noted that a majority of students enrolling out of the district have never attended Evansville and are not likely to attend under any circumstances. Ergo, it was implied, it is not worth the resources necessary to comprehensively explore the issue. That may be true, but it needs to be documented beyond word of mouth and gut instinct. The fact that the gap is widening over time shows there is some stress on the system causing change. An unbiased investigation could be very useful.
Gathering data through exit interviews and detailed tracking of programs to which students are going would be just the first step in reversing ECSD enrollment losses. The board has yet to focus on the “open enrollment in” side of the equation. In 2006, non-resident families enrolled 45 of their children into the ECSD and 28 of them had never attended Evansville. This year, 42 non-resident children have been enrolled into the district with only 8 new faces. The stories of people willing to go out of their way to enter the district year after year could inform the board as to which programs are attracting families. Once the data for open enrollment both in and out of the district is fully evaluated, trends and opportunities may come to light.
Current enrollment out data provides some insight, but more detail is necessary. For example, the number of outgoing students seeking virtual learning opportunities more than doubled this year from 7 to 15, with a tenfold increase in grades K-8. If this kind of growth out to virtual schools continues, it may behoove the district to investigate offering its own virtual school option to serve those students and attract even more families with alternative programming needs. Board Vice President Nancy Hurley noted at the February 11 meeting that it’s important to know why virtual learners are seeking this opportunity before the district spends money to create its own virtual school. If parents are unsatisfied with the district as a whole, simply providing a virtual option will probably not recapture this demographic. However, if virtual schooling is ideal for the child and parents are otherwise happy with the district, then creating this new educational option could recapture some lost enrollment.
“If you build it, they will come,” does not apply in today’s public education landscape. Parents who are determined to provide an education tailored to their children’s needs are no longer a captive audience obligated to remain frustrated with an unresponsive district. Districts that offer cutting edge programs accompanied by an unwavering commitment to excellence and community partnership will thrive as will their students. On the other hand, districts unable to keep pace with the rapid evolution of public education will continue to shrink, lose funding and descend into a self-perpetuating downward spiral, ultimately failing the kids. If I am elected, I will encourage the board to independently explore why students are enrolling out of the district at twice the rate they are enrolling into it. A comprehensive analysis of that information would enable the board to identify and actively support initiatives that will help recoup outwardly bound students. This in turn would make the district more attractive to non-residents. If the board applies their vision of excellence to this endeavor, the open enrollment deficit can become a surplus and everyone wins, especially the kids.
Note: I am very passionate about this. I am holding a “Meet the Candidate” forum on March 2 to explore this issue (see my ad in this week’s Review).