February 23, 2024

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Blue Valley, Olathe: open enrollment brings undesirable students

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School officials’ rejection of an open enrollment bill in the Kansas legislature offers a rare glimpse of an elitist attitude that belies their professed devotion to diversity and inclusion.  USD 229 Blue Valley and USD 233 Olathe issued a joint statement, effectively saying open enrollment would force them to accept students they don’t want —  kids who are from poor families or have special needs.

HB 2553 would allow parents to enroll their children in a district not assigned by where they live if the accepting district has the capacity to take them.  It’s a small choice for parents, but a choice to be sure for those who can’t afford to live in a different district.

Blue Valley Superintendent Tonya Merrigan and Olathe Superintendent Brent Yeager noted that taking non-resident students through open enrollment would attract undesirable students.

“… we are certain to get a rush of special education students, (emphasis in original) as we already get inquiries almost daily from non-resident parents trying to enroll as both of our districts have a reputation of offering superior special education services.”

The districts went on to note that housing costs in the wealthy area help keep their districts performing at a high level.

“While we can certainly empathize with parents in lower-performing districts, both Blue Valley and Olathe are among the highest-performing districts in Kansas – indeed competing nationally – and, as such, would find our districts overwhelmed with requests from non-residents. Without intending to sound elitist, it is nonetheless true that housing costs in our districts often provide a check on resident student growth now.”

In another slap at poor people, Blue Valley and Olathe say it isn’t fair for their well-off residents to have to pay to educate kids from outside their district.

“What we believe our local districts’ taxpayers would find particularly egregious is that their taxes would be paying for non-resident students, (emphasis in original) meaning the local resources for our own resident students would be spread even further. While we would receive state BASE aid for these students, the same is not true for capital outlay, bond and interest, and other weightings based on property valuations.”

By the way, people all across Kansas are helping to pay for kids attending Blue Valley and Olathe with their income tax and sales tax, as local property tax is only a portion of funding for almost every school district.

Rep. Kristy Williams, (R-Agusta) who is a proponent of the bill and chairs the K-12 Education Budget Committee, told KSHB-TV that that argument simply doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t understand the push back on that. I think that just because I can’t afford a home in a certain district, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have the advantages that that district provides their students and there are differences,” Williams said. 

‘High achievement’ is a deceptive claim

Contrary to their claims, achievement in Blue Valley and Olathe is much lower than they would have parents believe.

The 2021 state assessment shows 25% of Blue Valley high school students are below grade level in math and less than half are on track for college and career.  It’s worse in Olathe; 38% are below grade level and only a quarter are on track.

Still, those districts offer a better opportunity than the adjacent Kansas City, Kansas school district, where 71% are below grade level and just 7% are on track.

Open enrollment would also prevent retaliation

If HB 2553 had been law last year, Milissa and Lance Caskey wouldn’t have seen their children unceremoniously booted from the district they had attended all their lives.

The Caskeys have sent their children to school in the Santa Fe Trail school district in Osage County for a long time, but in 2018 moved just outside the district’s boundaries. 

Currently, Kansas law allows parents to transfer their children to adjoining districts — if the receiving school board approves — which is generally given pro forma.

For the 2021-22 school year, however, on the recommendation of Santa Fe Superintendent  Jim Lentz, that approval was denied.  The Caskeys say this was retaliation for their and their children’s outspoken opposition to several school policies.

By taking that decision from local school boards, it would prevent that sort of retaliation by any district or superintendent.

Open enrollment is not a new concept

Twenty-eight states — including Colorado — have open enrollment laws that allow students to attend a public school outside of their home district, subject to available capacity in the receiving district. 

At a recent committee hearing, one person who benefited from open enrollment spoke.

Madi Ashour, told the committee that she wouldn’t be there to advocate for students if not for open enrollment in Colorado. Ashour flew in from Colorado to tell legislators that she would have been trapped in the district where her parents could afford to live if not for open enrollment.  Now, because the opportunity to attend another district got her a better education, she’s able to help others.  Ashour is a Senior Regional Advocacy Associate for ExcelinEd.

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