Staff editorial (Feb. 23, 2012)

Story by The Spectator Staff

A report this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke with assistant professor of economics at UW-Whitewater David Welsch, who recently published results of a study that said districts that lost students to other schools through the state’s open enrollment program tended to see better student achievement.

The open enrollment program was established in the ’98-’99 school year and it allows parents the freedom to transfer their children to any public school district outside the district they live in, as long as they pay for transportation and the new district has room.

According to the article, some 28,000 students transferred schools last year.

Welsch’s research studied district-level data in which student transfers supposedly caused general student achievement to rise.

The editorial board thought this an interesting way of looking at why some schools do better achievement-wise, but it can’t possibly be the only factor.

If schools are losing students, that’s not a particularly strong correlation to student achievement, therefore it’s a weak argument to say that open enrollment transfers are the reason schools improve.

Maybe they improve by reflecting on the areas where they really need improvement and then planning ways to solve those problems or bring in instructors to improve teaching methods.

Just because students are leaving doesn’t mean that changing the way you do things or adding reinforcements won’t help.

There’s frankly a plethora of reasons why some schools do better than other schools academically and those reasons will vary from school to school and case by case.

Perhaps instead of associating the improved achievement on open enrollment, we could assign it to smaller class sizes.  When students get more one-on-one experience with teachers, they might tend to do better.

It’s certainly possible that the number of transfers has something to do with the reason why some schools improve, but the editorial board though it would be hasty to not consider other implications.

It’s hard to test the results of Welsch’s study when there’s no student-level data, a problem that he addresses in the article, but it’s always going to be difficult to control.

This makes the results of the data hard to trust.

It seems like open enrollment is the sort of short-term solution to many problems schools face.

With less students, there are implications such as lack of funding, even despite improved scores.

In all, the editorial board found this research to be rather incomplete, and instead of seeing loads put on the back of open enrollment, it would have been preferable to have more thorough research that takes other, more likely factors into consideration.