At a time when some Twin Cities suburban school districts are closing schools because of declining enrollment, some others actively recruit and are bursting at the seams with nonresident students. That’s because Minnesota’s open enrollment laws allow kids to attend schools outside their regular attendance areas.
Minnetonka is an example of a district that has actively and successfully pursued nonresident students and the per-pupil state dollars they bring with them — resulting in 37.5% of this year’s elementary students coming from outside the west suburban district.
Minnetonka’ enrollment practices caused a Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) review of the district policies — an action that should drive home a lesson to all districts. State rules must be followed when placing nonresident students in schools.
After receiving a complaint, MDE investigated and found evidence suggesting the district may have violated two eligibility requirements. First, it accepted nonresident students on a first-come, first-served basis, without conducting lotteries. State law calls for the lottery system to ensure fair access to all families — not just those who are savvy about working the system.
MDE was also concerned that the Minnetonka district may have offered preferred access to open enroll if a family’s preschoolers attended Minnetonka programs. That, too, would be a departure from state regulations, under which only students of district staff, siblings of students already enrolled, or students who are part of an approved integration or achievement plan may receive priority placements.
In a letter to Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson, MDE asked that the district demonstrate that it is complying with the law. Minnetonka school leaders and MDE have since worked through the issues and are satisfied that the district is in compliance.
Even so, the MDE review wasn’t the only challenge to the school system’s practices. Upset about the district’s high nonresident enrollment, four candidates ran against school board members in the November election in part because they believed schools were overcrowded. The incumbents prevailed, but the campaign sparked debate about the district’s enrollment policies.
As for whether Minnetonka’s 37.5% open enrollment is too much, state law doesn’t place an absolute floor or ceiling on what districts may do. But there are criteria that help prevent displacing resident students. The state allows districts to establish limits based on guidelines related to total enrollment and the number of resident students who have enrolled elsewhere.
Open enrollment has been a boon for families who wish to cross borders to find the right program fit their children’s needs. And for some districts it has become a budget booster. Still, whatever the reasons for participating, all parties involved must respect open enrollment rules to ensure fairness and equitable access.