The bus cruising through Eden Prairie neighborhoods in the morning looks like any other yellow school bus.
But some families in the community know it’s different. They’ve hired the driver to pick up their children and haul them to the adjoining school district in Minnetonka. For some, the trip is 30 minutes one way and requires a change of buses.
Eden Prairie schools are usually ranked among the best in the Minnesota, but parent Jane-Marie Bloomberg says it’s worth paying $700 a year to bus her children to Minnetonka, where class sizes are smaller.
“It’s a lot less driving for us and a lot less coordinating for our work and personal lives,” Bloomberg said.
From Eden Prairie to Mahtomedi, suburban parents are going the distance to enroll their children in other school districts and charter schools that offer the programs and services they want. In the process, they’re effectively redrawing the map of school district boundaries in the Twin Cities metro and producing unexpected winners and losers.
Open enrollment and charter schools, while slow to take hold when the choice movement began in the early 1990s, are proving increasingly popular with suburban families. More than 48,000 suburban students took advantage of school choice options last year, and that number continues to rise.
Minnetonka and Mahtomedi are among the big winners. Minnetonka has raked in $125 million in the past 10 years from open enrollment, while enrollment losses at school districts such as Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Forest Lake are squeezing budgets and forcing major reinvention.
For parents like Meghan Boots, open enrollment has given her the freedom to intervene in her daughter’s education. Boots has moved her daughter from Burnsville to Prior Lake-Savage and recently to a Richfield charter school.
“It was a life saver to be able to say, ‘OK, I don’t want her to go here anymore,’ and take her to another school,” Boots said. “I could go anywhere I wanted as long as I could drive.”
Despite the difficulties some districts are facing, support for school choice remains strong in Minnesota.
“School choice has been invaluable to Minnesota families,” said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chairwoman of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee.
Minnetonka was at the risk of closing schools when it decided to market itself and introduce immersion programs in 2007, said Superintendent Dennis Peterson.
Now, Minnetonka’s public schools have about 3,500 students open enrolling in its district of 10,600 this fall. The district gains 17 students for each student it loses to another district or a charter school.
“We would have been closing three or four schools by now had we not increased enrollment,” Peterson said. “We will need to keep attracting open enrollment for the long term.”
The pursuit of nonresident students comes at a cost to Minnetonka district taxpayers.
Until 2014, almost all of the money that followed students from one district to another was state aid. But changes made at the state level shifted an increased share of the costs of educating nonresident students to local property taxes.
In Minnetonka’s case, adding one secondary student from outside the district would cost local taxpayers $2,568 in 2017, compared with $252 in 2014, said Robert Porter, a retired finance specialist who worked at the state Department of Education.
Asked whether it’s fair for resident taxpayers to support nonresident students, Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, which includes Minnetonka, said the proposal was not sought by his group, but was one of several major finance changes promoted that year by the state’s Education Department.
“We raised the issue as you just stated: ‘Is this something we want to do?’ ” Croonquist said. “We didn’t adamantly oppose it.”
Four or five families in Jenn Vorland’s Hopkins neighborhood send their children to the Minnetonka district. Hopkins has experienced several years of enrollment declines and budget cuts, and Vorland believes that means fewer resources for gifted and talented students, or other specialized services.
“There are some wonderfully wealthy people in Hopkins, and there are some incredibly poor people in Hopkins,” Vorland said. Minnetonka has less of that economic disparity, she said. “This allows the services for the people who do need more help, more opportunities.”
The Minnetonka district enrollment is about 84 percent white students. Of the 3,200 students who open enrolled into the district in the 2016-2017 school year, 79 percent were white. Asian students made up the largest population of minority students open enrolling, at 12 percent.
The flight of white students from more diverse districts like Hopkins to less diverse ones like Minnetonka is troubling, said Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who has studied how open enrollment and charter schools combine to weaken integration.
“The patterns of segregation are growing worse,” he said.
In the south metro, Prior Lake has become such a popular open enrollment destination that Wendy Alm was wait-listed when she applied for a place for her kindergartner. Alm owns a house in Savage but was surprised to find that her address was in the Burnsville district, not Prior Lake.
“I’m a little disappointed there aren’t better options for her,” she said. “Our new house is lovely, the neighborhood is fantastic and I’m surprised by the school choices.”
With increased growth, the Prior Lake district is running out of space for its 8,400 students. The school board voted to put two questions on the November ballot seeking property tax increases: a $109.3 million bond referendum for more space and an increase in its operating levy to $924 per student.
On the other side of the exodus are school districts like Forest Lake, which is losing 25 percent of the students in its attendance area. With state funding following the students, the district has had to cut staffing. For this school year, the district cut $2.5 million from its budget.
“When you have 500 students graduate, you need 500 kids to come into kindergarten,” said Rob Rapheal, school board president. “We haven’t had the students to support that.”
Many of the 2,000-plus students Forest Lake lost wind up at the Lakes International Language Academy (LILA), also in Forest Lake.
LILA was started in 2004 by administrators, teachers and parents in the Forest Lake district after the district rejected a proposal to start a language immersion program.
“This was not our first choice to start this,” said LILA director Shannon Peterson. “But there was demand and we had a little energy to do it.”
At first the charter’s students went to district schools for middle school and high school, and the collaboration earned an award for innovation in 2012.
Then the charter opened its own secondary school. Peterson said the school adds 100 students a year and is looking to expand.
“When they opened the high school, the relationship became harder,” Rapheal said. “They are directly competing with us.”
Burnsville finds itself in the same place as Forest Lake: struggling to retain its resident students. The district has seen 19 percent of its resident students leave to open enroll into another district or attend a charter school.
Four Burnsville moms on the sidelines of a recent football practice at Metcalf Middle School said they are sending their children elsewhere because of lagging test scores and support for their children in the Burnsville district.
“I want the best possibility for my son, and Burnsville does not offer that,” said Kathryn Lusack, who moved her son to the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district this fall.
The parents, all women of color, said the Burnsville district’s staff lacks cultural sensitivity and disciplines their children unfairly. They also fear sending their children to Burnsville High School because of stories they’ve heard about violent incidents.
“The stories that are out there are inaccurate and unfair,” said Superintendent Cindy Amoroso. “Not only to us as a district; it’s not right for our kids.”
District officials said its image problem is on the mend with its Vision One91 initiative, part of a $65 million voter-approved referendum that allowed the district to realign grades, add classrooms and athletic areas and provide career-oriented classes at the high school.
The changes have excited parents and raised hope that more students will stay, Amoroso said.
“We want to be a destination district that meets the needs of all students and best prepares them for whatever the next step may be,” she said.
Pat Lawton did not want to take any chances when it came to her son’s education, so in 2016 she moved her family from North St. Paul to Mahtomedi. Open enrollment wasn’t an option because the district has begun to seal its borders to open enrollment.
Lawton, who grew up in Mahtomedi, wanted her 2-year-old son to benefit from the community’s support for education and its willingness to approve tax increases for schools.
“Absolutely, the No. 1 factor for why we moved back here was because of the schools,” she said.
Open enrollment has long been a flash point in this small school district on the shores of White Bear Lake. Some residents felt that the students flowing into the district were driving up local property taxes, Superintendent Mark Larson said.
At one point, open enrollment accounted for a third of the district’s 3,000-plus students.
In 2015, the district decided to close off open enrollment and limit enrollment to younger siblings of students already enrolled.
Soon after, Mark Ashby, a local real estate agent, saw a large increase in home sales.
“The way to guarantee attendance in Mahtomedi schools is to move in,” Larson said.
Parents in the tiny nearby city of Birchwood Village are considering a way to get back into the Mahtomedi schools without moving. They’ve started a committee to explore shifting the whole village’s attendance from the White Bear Lake school district to Mahtomedi.
Birchwood Village resident Chris Creagh’s neighbors had been open enrolling into Mahtomedi for years — until the district clamped down on open enrollment.
Parents value the choice that open enrollment gives them, she said.
“We are worried that an option that has been around for 20 to 30 years is not an option anymore,” she said. “Most parents I know have tried.”
Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.