Why are so many students open enrolling out of District 112?

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?

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10 Responses to “Why are so many students open enrolling out of District 112?”

  1. Nice analysis, Sean.

  2. The numbers last year didn’t bear that out. In fact, we already spend more per pupil in total spending. I received my numbers from the District. Where did yours come from? Even the finance director said last fall, “it apears that we spend more, because we do spend more”.

    • Total tax burden in District 112 is higher, yes. The figures I was referring to were operating funds. Minnetonka and Eden Prairie spend more on operations than 112, but the total tax burden is higher here because of the debt service on the new schools built in the last 20 years.

      • And to tax payers, that matters. That has to be part of the equation. You can’t expect to build a 100 million dollar high school, and still hit the public for operational money as well. The district blew their wad on one facility. It was a stupid thing to do, and you just cannot keep coming to the tax payer to pick up the tab for this stupidity. Unfortunately, district 112 is going to have to live with the consequences for some time to come. If ti were convenient, my kids would go elsewhere, because it’s clear the focus isn’t on education so much as it on spending. Money does not equal results. A 100 million dollar school doesn’t make children smarter.

        • Yes, I know it matters. My last paragraph addresses that point.

          What school do your kids go to? How has your experience been there?

          • We had a senior just graduate from Chaska. We have two more in the middle school. All are doing great, and most of their teachers are awesome. The only bad experience we have is that every year they ask for more money. And we like many I know are really ticked off about the amount that was spent on one facility, knowing full well it would strap the local base, and knowing full well that it would only be a matter of time before they asked for more capital expense money, like the tech budget fiasco last year. I fully expect our educational leaders to be more responsible with the tax base. It is not infinite. The economy stinks, so for many, there haven’t been any rising income. A bad economy means state revenue is down as well. Plumetting home values mean there’s less property value to tax. Everyone is making do with less. But somehow, the district feels it’s time to ask for more money, yet again. Let’s get a new president, one who knows anything about the economy, and get this mess turned around, and then revenues will increase on their own, and maybe, just maybe property values might rebound, and school revenues will increase, and the public might even have some extra cash to throw at some needed levy. But A: they better prove they need it, and B: they better be wise with how they use it, because again, there is a limit to how much we will stand for the district blowing out for stupid expenditures. Instead of building the Taj, perhaps we could build something a tad more reasonable.

            • I’m glad you’re having good experiences in the schools. We’re having a good experience for our oldest daughter at Jonathan Elementary, and I intend to see that our schools remain in good shape for our youngest when she gets to that age.

              I think there’s a couple of points here. The school district hasn’t asked for money every year. Last year’s referendum was the first since the Chanhassen H.S. referendum in 2006. Secondly, whether one agrees with the Chanhassen H.S. vote, the decision-makers in the administration and the School Board are almost completely different now. Only two of the current Board were there in 2006 (and one of those two is retiring), and the key senior administrators — Bauck and Kahring — have been on the job for two years or less. From that perspective, I think it’s a bit unfair to tar them with responsibility for decisions made by others. Yes, they have to deal with the ramifications of those earlier decisions, but it’s not Jim Bauck’s fault that a $92 million H.S. was approved by the Board and voters and then built. So we have to deal with the situation as it is.

              I would argue that the district is doing a more sound job of managing its finances under the new administration. They’ve done some good work to refund some of the debt service bonds — changes that will save about $1 million a year for the next seven years. I agree that if they’re going to come back with another tech referendum this fall, they’re going to have to do a much better job of explaining the plan.

              • Here’s what they can’t do. They cannot mislead the public, like they tried to do last fall, claiming we spend less on technology than other districts, just because we do not have a dedicated budget just for technology. When I lived in Eagan, the special technology levy meant unused funds were available, but couldn’t be used for anything but technology. And so, you guessed it, the district asked for more opating levies when they had plenty of surplus in the tech budget. There is no need for special tech levy. All are capital expenses, whether it’s to fix buildings or buy equipment, or furniture or what have you. I’d rather the distrcit have the flexibility to use and capital funds for whatever is needed. We should be paying our administrators to figure out how best to spend the money they have without creating special levies that lock funds from needed places. I’ve seen no evidence to this point that this district isn’t just as underhanded at these budget matters as Eagan was, or our previous administration that brought us the HS boondoggle. The nonsense postcard they sent out last year was intentially misleading. I have no reason to think otherwise at this point. And as such, I can’t trust a soul at the district level. At some point, they are going to have be more honset, and stop resorting to “dirty” tricks to get more money from us.

                • The issue with the capital bonds is that they have to have a specified use, per state law. You can’t take money from, say, the “Build Chanhassen H.S.” capital bond and use that money for something else.

                  • Yeah, I know that. But they do have capital maintaince budgets that go for hard items, like technology and furniture and such. We spend plenty on tech without a spefici budget for it now. Why do we need a specific levy just for tech? Just because some other district does it that way, doesn’t make it a good idea.

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