Minnesota was one of the pioneering states in public school choice, with open enrollment — allowing parents to enroll their children in any public school district in the state — beginning in the 1990-91 school year. A few year later, Minnesota instituted charter schools, further increasing public school choice options for parents.
As such, school districts found themselves competing for students. And while much of the attention about open enrollment has been centered on its impact on athletics, it’s important to look at the other impacts of open enrollment on the schools in the Eastern Carver County School District (District 112).
The most recent numbers available cover the 2010-11 school year, and they show that District 112 lost a net of 783 students (about 8% of base enrollment, or about two sections per grade level) to open enrollment and charter school options.
Over half of the total loss of students went to the Minnetonka school district (409 students net), while there was a 109 net student loss to the Eden Prairie school district. An additional 264 students opted to attend five prominent charter schools. These options in total essentially represent the entire gap — all the other school districts and charter options net out to a total loss of one student. District 112 did have positive net balances with some area districts — Central, where 112 gained a net 27 students, as well as Belle Plaine (+22), Shakopee (+20), and Waconia (+19).
Why are so many students opting out of District 112? Well, looking at open enrollment in general — districts that tend to gain students on net tend to have the following characteristics: higher test scores, higher per-pupil spending, higher enrollments, and lower percentages of low-income students and minorities.
Do those factors explain what’s going on in our district — specifically, in comparison to Minnetonka and Eden Prairie?
It is true that Minnetonka and Eden Prairie have produced higher test scores in recent years than District 112. Minnetonka, over the last three years, has achieved average math proficiency (across all grades tested) 12 points higher than District 112 and reading proficiency seven points higher than District 112. Eden Prairie also outperforms District 112 slightly (four points favorable in reading and two points favorable in math).
Per pupil operational spending is higher in Minnetonka (about $800 per pupil) and Eden Prairie (about $400) as well. Enrollments between the three districts are roughly equal. There are some significant demographic distinctions between the three districts. Minnetonka is less diverse (five percent fewer minorities than District 112 and 16 percent fewer than Eden Prairie) and wealthier (eight percent of students of free or reduced price lunches compared to 18% in District 112 and 19% in Eden Prairie).
Are there other specific factors that could be at play here? Definitely.
First, migration to Minnetonka schools can be more natural for Chanhassen residents. Already, part of the city is part of that district and many of the district’s schools are in close proximity to the city limits and are near major highways (MN-7 and MN-62). Open enrollment is far more prevalent in cases where good options are nearby. It’s worthwhile to note that few students are making across-town journeys to attend school.
Second, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie schools have worked hard to develop unique offerings that appeal to certain constituencies. Minnetonka has established Chinese and Spanish immersion programs that involve children from kindergarten through middle school, as well as a strong gifted and talented program and an international baccalaureate program at the high school level. Similarly, Eden Prairie has Spanish immersion and were early adopters of gifted and talented programs nearly 40 years ago.
What must our district do to reverse some of these trends? For starters, keep a continued focus on improving academic performance. Closing performance gaps between the two high schools is a major factor here, as the perception of a large academic gap between the two schools drives parents to take their children to another district.
Next, stay committed to new programs. District 112 is starting a Spanish immersion program for kindergarten and first-grade students this fall. This program should be expanded and enhanced as the children grow so that it fully functions all the way to the middle school level. At the high school level, the Integrated Arts Academy debuts this fall as well — providing specialized classes in visual, horticultural, and culinary arts in addition to the normal high school curriculum. We should evaluate these programs and work to create other new programs if successful — Chinese immersion or a science and technology focused middle or high-school program might be places to look next.
Finally, as a community, we’re going to need to have a discussion on what we do now that our district is transitioning out of a period of rapid growth and into a more stable enrollment period. Over the next few years, the debt service portion of your property tax bill will begin to decline, as the bonds used to construct schools over the last two decades begin to be paid off. Will we do what districts like Minnetonka and Eden Prairie did, and re-invest some of that money by increasing the operating levy?