• Inter- and intra-district open-enrollment policies let parents choose a traditional public school other than the one to which their child has been assigned
  • Unlike most other states, North Carolina has no open-enrollment laws at the state level that would require districts to offer these opportunities to families
  • Although North Carolina law ostensibly supports parental choice by letting them apply for reassignment on behalf of their child, parents’ ability to do so in practice depends to some extent on the magnanimity of their local school board

Last year, Gov. Roy Cooper made headlines by declaring a “State of Emergency for Public Education” in North Carolina. In January, he proclaimed 2024 to be “The Year of Public Schools.” Just last month, he announced a “Public School Emergency” and issued an accompanying press release warning about the “risks” that the state’s “extreme” and “destructive” Opportunity Scholarship voucher program poses not only to public schools, but also to children.

If Opportunity Scholarships really posed such a threat, one would expect the state to make every effort to convince families to make a different choice by expanding their ability to select among traditional public schools. Research shows, however, that North Carolina lags behind other states when it comes to giving students educational options within the public-school system.

In a comprehensive report entitled “Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023,” Reason Foundation analyst Jude Schwalbach wrote that “North Carolina is one of the few states without any open enrollment options.” In a report for EdChoice, Susan Pendergrass presented an even starker analysis: “Inter-district choice is expressly prohibited only in Illinois and North Carolina.”

How Open Enrollment Expands School Choice for Families

Open enrollment is a form of school choice that lets parents choose a public school other than the one to which their child has been residentially assigned. Inter-district open-enrollment policies let students “transfer to another public school district, even if they live outside the choice district’s attendance boundaries.” Such a policy would, for example, allow parents in School District 1 to enroll their child in School District 2. Intra-district open enrollment gives parents the ability to choose among public schools within a district. Under this kind of policy, parents could send their child to High School B within School District 1 instead of High School A.

Why it matters

Shouldn’t parents have the option to choose the public school that works best for their child?

Several states — including nearby Tennessee and Georgia — have given parents more options within the public-school system by passing strong laws on open enrollment, but North Carolina is not one of them.

Why should North Carolina remain an outlier in providing educational freedom and opportunities to students within the public-school system?

Parents might want to choose a public school other than the one to which their child has been assigned for a wide variety of reasons. Public High School A might be closer to their home or workplace than Public High School B, thereby simplifying transportation logistics. One school might provide higher quality academic programming or have a better school culture. Parents might want to choose a certain school that poses fewer concerns about school safety or bullying than others.

Shouldn’t parents have the option to choose the public school that works best for their child?

How Open Enrollment Provides Opportunities for Public Schools, Too

Some people argue that allowing parents to make this choice would siphon resources from certain public schools or districts. That objection is unpersuasive, however. For one thing, many parents are happy with their child’s assigned public school. These families have no reason to look for alternative options. But for some families, their child’s assigned school isn’t a good fit. These families deserve the option to choose a school that is.

Additionally, data from Wisconsin — which has allowed inter-district open enrollment since the 1998–99 school year — demonstrate that despite fears of open enrollment decimating rural school districts, many such districts actually gained students. The data showed that during the 2022–23 school year, “[w]hile Wisconsin’s suburban school districts received the lion’s share, 34% of transfer students, the state’s rural school districts received the second largest share. Nearly 23,000, or 31% of Wisconsin transfer students transferred to rural school districts.”

Instead of viewing open enrollment as a threat, school districts should think of it as an opportunity to market themselves as the best choice for students and families and should take advantage of the chance to attract new students to their schools.

How North Carolina Can Expand Public-School Choice

North Carolina law states that where school attendance zones or districts exist, students must generally “be assigned to schools within such attendance districts.” The statute does, however, carve out exceptions for parents or guardians who apply for reassignment on behalf of their children. In theory, this promotes parental choice. Yet in practice, parents’ ability to exercise this choice varies by district. Some districts, including Pitt County, Union County, and Gaston County, have fairly robust open-enrollment policies, while others allow transfers from a student’s base school only in limited circumstances. Parents’ access to different public schools is thus governed to some extent by the inclinations of their child’s local school board.

The problem could be compounded by another provision in state law, which grants school boards discretion to make exceptions to residential assignment on a case-by-case basis so that a student can attend a specialized school “or for any other reason which the board of education in its sole discretion deems sufficient.” It’s worth noting that granting discretion is not the same thing as obligating. A school board that has the discretion to make an exception for any particular child could conceivably choose not to make an exception.

A bill introduced last year would have expanded parents’ choices within the public-school system by requiring every school board to “adopt an open enrollment plan to allow for the enrollment of students not domiciled within the assignment area of the local school administrative unit.” According to the Reason Foundation, the bill would have established “mandatory cross- and within-district open enrollment.” Ultimately, however, the proposal never made it out of committee.

North Carolina achieved several significant victories on the school-choice front last year. These changes are important and should be celebrated, but more can be done to promote parental choice and ensure that North Carolina’s educational system meets the needs of those it is meant to serve — students and families.