Open enrollment bill would increase student opportunity, parental choice

Open enrollment bill would increase student opportunity, parental choice

It is no secret that South Carolina lags behind much of the nation in education. A recent ranking by the U.S. News & World Report put our school system at 42nd in the United States. With the influx of people moving into the Southeast from other states, work must be done to ensure that South Carolina remains an attractive destination for families and future parents to call home. One way to do this is by expanding open enrollment, giving families more choice in where their kids go to school.

More choice, better outcomes

State open enrollment policies allow parents to send their children to any public school, regardless of location or district. They foster healthy competition between districts and schools and expand access to new educational opportunities, among other benefits. S.C. Rep. Jason Elliott, co-sponsor of a South Carolina open enrollment bill, agrees and points out that if officials “see students leaving those schools because they are underperforming, that it will incentivize that particular school and that district to improve the overall education in the particular school or in the school district.”

Put another way, it will elevate our state's academic capabilities as low-performing schools reassess and refine their education offerings. 

The bill (H.3843) in question passed overwhelmingly in the House last year, though it has not received a hearing in the Senate. It would require all local S.C. school boards to adopt an open enrollment policy, allowing parents to enroll their children outside of their normally designated schools where feasible. Each district would set policy details based on local needs and resources. Crucially, it would not displace students from their current schools to accommodate new enrollees.

Although some school districts in South Carolina allow for "district school choice" (basically open enrollment that is limited to a student's resident school district), most do not offer such a policy. 

Open enrollment would give families more freedom in finding a school that best fits their child’s needs. This might include taking Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, accessing career readiness programs, or trying out new and creative instructional models. In any event, a student's ZIP code should not restrict their access to new opportunities for learning.


Looking across the nation

A 2022 report from the Reason Foundation found that just 11 states had mandatory open enrollment laws. The following year, it noted that six states enacted “major improvements” to their laws; however, South Carolina scored zero out of five possible points when measuring open enrollment best practices.

If South Carolina passes H.3843, it will immediately find itself ahead of the curve compared to many other states.

Florida, ranked 1st in education freedom by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has a very popular open enrollment program. Reason found that nearly 1 in 10 Sunshine State students took advantage of this option during the 2022-23 school year. It also learned that California students often utilize open enrollment to access AP or IB courses or to avoid bullying, among other reasons. Some examples might extend beyond the classroom, such as having access to different sports teams and athletic opportunities.

Wisconsin is another state showcasing the benefits of open enrollment. One report observed a temporary boost in test scores among districts that lost students due to transfers, suggesting a fire is lit under low-performing schools to improve their education quality. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which allows for intradistrict open enrollment, found that their lowest-ranking schools saw the most improvement, likely caused by competition and a desire to retain students.

An important factor parents interested in open enrollment should consider is transportation. H.3843 allows school districts to offer transportation to nonresident students, although it would not be required. Parents might have to drive their kids to the new school or pay for a transportation service. Overall, this policy seems appropriate since it is ultimately the parents who choose open enrollment. It would also be in line with the open enrollment policies of many other states.



Enacting statewide open enrollment would be a smart move for South Carolina as it looks to expand its school choice offerings. The policy has a strong track record of success in other states, not to mention it is popular among parents. Evidence shows that open enrollment can improve education quality through competition, which can raise South Carolina’s academic standing. H.3843 presents a critical opportunity to achieve this goal, which would put our state ahead of the curve and empower more parents with choice.  


William Morton is a research intern for the South Carolina Policy Council