By JUSTIN WIER
When Youngstown State University professor Karen Larwin set out to study the academic impact of open-enrollment policies, the results were unexpected.
The findings: Open enrollment either made no difference in student achievement, or student achievement improved.
“We were shocked,” Larwin said. “It was just so drastically in one direction.”
This runs counter to concerns about students from poorer-performing districts bringing down test scores or otherwise harming the academic environment, a charge that has been voiced by concerned parents at school board meetings across the Mahoning Valley.
Nine of Mahoning County’s 14 school districts opted to accept students through open enrollment during the 2016-17 academic year. Hundreds of county families sent more than 2,500 students to districts other than the one in which they live. Millions of dollars follow them.
Because about $6,000 in state funding follows each student who decides to enroll in another school, some districts see open enrollment as a revenue generator.
Ron Iarussi, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, co-authored the study with Larwin. He said districts are pursuing open enrollment because they’re struggling to get operating levies approved by taxpayers. Austintown hasn’t approved an operating levy since 1996.
“The only other source of revenue for districts is to go open enrollment,” Iarussi said.
While some districts benefit, others do not.
In financial impact, Austintown Local Schools receive the biggest revenue boost in the county. According to the Ohio Department of Education, the district gains 776 students and $2.4 million in net revenue.
Across the border, Youngstown City Schools are hit the hardest: The district loses 1,526 students to open enrollment, and nearly $9 million in net funding follows them.
Larwin said Youngstown is unique among large Ohio cities because some districts surrounding the city schools accept open-enrollment students.
“If you look at Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland or Cincinnati, you’ll see that the city school is surrounded by closed districts,” she said. “We’re unique here in that we don’t have this doughnut surrounding Youngstown City Schools.”
This benefits students who are able to find programs at nearby schools better suited to their needs, but it also makes it difficult for the Youngstown school district to keep costs down. Officials there have the same number of school buildings and bus routes, but fewer students and therefore less funding.
In 2015, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, co-sponsored a bill that would have terminated open enrollment until a study could be conducted by the state Legislature.
He said the intent of open enrollment was to allow students to attend schools with programs not available in their home districts. But as more school districts use open enrollment to increase revenue, it’s causing stress among school districts, he said.
“I don’t think that the legislators that put forward open enrollment would have envisioned what’s happening now,” said Schiavoni, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year. “Some of the school districts in poor urban and rural areas are trying to hold on to every student they can to have a functioning school district.”
It creates a system where the best-rated schools can avoid open enrollment, leaving struggling schools to fight over students, Schiavoni said.
Rather than end open enrollment, Youngstown CEO Krish Mohip would like to see Youngstown City Schools improve to the point the schools are more attractive to students and parents.
“There are good things happening,” Mohip said. “We have to prepare for more kids coming back to Youngstown.”
Board member Jackie Adair was less optimistic, however. She said parents said behavioral issues and poor interaction with the community are just a few things that need to be changed before the district will “stop the bleeding.”
A TALE OF TWO DISTRICTS
Many complaints about open enrollment in Austintown concern the number of students accepted. Austintown accepts 776 students in open enrollment. While that number might seem high, it is below average in percentage terms. Those 776 students comprise 15 percent of Austintown’s student body. Meanwhile, 54.7 percent – or 316 – of Lowellville students arrive through open enrollment.
With open enrollment more than doubling the number of total students, Lowellville schools would be much different without the open-enrollment students – and the nearly $1.8 million that follows them. In 1992, Lowellville was one of the first Mahoning Valley districts to participate in open enrollment.
Superintendent Geno Thomas said accepting those students allows the district to offer Italian courses and extracurricular activities they would otherwise be unable to offer. There are other benefits as well.
“The students coming from other area school districts allow Lowellville students and parents to grow and build relationships beyond its village that normally might not occur,” Thomas said.
He noted while open enrollment does not provide for transportation, the district tries to mitigate that by coordinating carpools.
Thomas said parents appear overall to be happy.
“Generally the feedback I receive from parents ... is that they are blessed, fortunate and so happy that Lowellville participates [in open enrollment] and accepted their children,” Thomas said.
In Austintown, parents have complained about open enrollment at board meetings.
The administration recently presented data addressing fears that Youngstown students are adversely affecting test scores or creating behavioral problems. The data showed the differences were not significant.
“We had the opportunity to dig into some data because of some questions from some community members, and the data spoke loud and clear for us,” said Austintown Schools Superintendent Vince Colaluca. “Our students, no matter where they come from, are successful.”
This reaffirms the conclusion Larwin found. In her study, she even found Lowellville open-enrollment students outperformed in-district students in certain years.
Another point raised by open-enrollment critics stems from a 2016 report by state Auditor Dave Yost, which said Austintown lost $25,000 by participating in open enrollment in the 2014-2015 school year.
The district has presented other numbers, but taking the auditor’s numbers at face value, Iarussi said $25,000 is a small fraction of a $35 million budget. It also neglects to account for other factors.
“What was not measured in that study is the amount of programming that Austintown has been able to implement because of open enrollment,” Iarussi said.
He said the auditor’s recommendations would put Austintown in a position where it has to cut programming, which would also hurt resident students, or go to the community for a levy. Colaluca has made similar arguments in the past.
Five county districts choose not to participate in open enrollment: Boardman, Campbell, Canfield, Poland and Springfield. Boardman, Campbell and Canfield lose more than 100 students each. This represents nearly 11 percent of Campbell’s student population, and less than 5 percent of Canfield’s and Boardman’s.
Still, Boardman loses 170 students and $1 million per year.
“We don’t like that obviously,” said Tim Saxton, Boardman Schools superintendent.
Parents have told Saxton students are leaving not because of academics, but for new facilities, athletics or because parents prefer a smaller district. The school district has discussed accepting open-enrollment students, but he said it’s not under serious consideration at the moment.
“We’re not afraid to discuss it,” Saxton said. “But when you talk to parents, when you talk to the stakeholders in our community, they’re not interested at this point in Boardman becoming an open-enrollment district.”
If public opinion changed, the district’s position might change, too. Outside of that, Saxton said the district would need to be in a difficult financial situation and unable to pass a levy.
While Poland lost only 45 students, or 2.2 percent of its student population, to open-enrollment districts this year, it is also concerned. Poland Schools Superintendent David Janofa said the district plans on sending surveys to families who decide to send their kids elsewhere.
“Anytime we lose a student we lose their revenue,” he said. “We’re not only losing state dollars ... but that leaves an empty chair in the classroom.”
Yet the district’s position on accepting students themselves is even more adamant than Boardman’s.
“I would never say never,” Janofa said. “But the school board has been very adamant that right now that’s not what we’re going to entertain.“
A COMPLEX ISSUE
Schiavoni acknowledged open enrollment is complex with a large web of costs and benefits. Charter schools are also competing for students, adding more uncertainty to the mix for districts that don’t know how much funding they’ll receive from one year to the next.
“The verdict is still kind of out on open enrollment because it really is a double-edged sword,” Schiavoni said. “But we’ve gone down the road of allowing it ... and that’s where we are.”
Iarussi, however, doesn’t think rescinding open enrollment would result in students attending their local public schools. It may just remove those students from the public school system.
“If Austintown were to cut back to 100 students on open enrollment, [what about] those other 600 students? I doubt highly that they would go back to their home districts,” Iarussi said. “Where would they go? Probably to charter schools.”
Contributors: Staff writers Jordyn Grzelewski and Amanda Tonoli.