About a month ago, I wrote about the pros and cons of school vouchers as a solution for “school-based sprawl” (that is, parents moving to suburbs to avoid urban public schools). I noted that a voucher program that included private schools might be expensive, since some private schools are quite costly.
By contrast, a school choice program limited to public schools would avoid these fiscal problems: the state could simply forbid public school districts from discriminating on the basis of residence. If a school district wanted to avoid radical increases in enrollment, it would have to use a lottery to decide which students were admitted. This plan might discourage sprawl by making prestigious suburban schools available to urban parents. And if both students from affluent families and students from poor families entered these schools, the class differences between urban and suburban schools might be erased in the long run. So such an open enrollment program might both expand student choice and be more egalitarian than the status quo.
This plan has one major cost: it would require a considerable investment (either public or private) in transportation, since students in search of good schools might wish to go all over a metropolitan area. Either government will have to buy many more school buses, or parents will have to spend a lot more time transporting their children to faraway schools. Moreover, suburbanites will be unwilling to pay property taxes for schools that other people’s children will attend; thus, states might have to take over school financing.
I note that most states have in fact enacted “open enrollment” laws allowing some interdistrict transfers. However, these laws are generally toothless; suburban school districts can generally refuse to admit students from other districts on the ground that there is insufficient space for them. Moreover, open enrollment statutes do not grant students the right to be transported across district lines, which means that students will not be able to attend an out-of-district school unless parents transports them.