By Chana Cox, PhD | Watchdog Arena
ALSEA, Ore.—In Alsea, Oregon, a town perched in the coast range about 25 miles from the Pacific, Superintendent Marc Thielman runs the only school district in the state with virtually total open enrollment—a policy now facing pressure in the Oregon Legislature.
Open enrollment was introduced by the Oregon Legislature in 2011 and was signed into law as House Bill 3681. HB 3681 allowed parents to transfer students to schools outside their home districts provided that the receiving schools would accept such transfers. Oregon also allows for inter-district transfers.
The main difference between the two is that with open enrollment, students do not have to get permission to transfer from their home districts. In the case of inter-district transfers, they do. Home districts can simply prohibit all inter-district transfers, or they can take so much time to approve a single transfer that the school year is almost over before the student is allowed to transfer.
Since all state and federal money goes with the student, such permission to transfer was rarely granted before HB 3861’s passage. Open enrollment gave students the greater freedom to transfer, and to Thielman, that freedom to compete has been Alsea’s saving grace since the economic downturn in the 1980s.
In the 1970s, Thielman says Alsea was a thriving logging town with a “full service” downtown, two timber mills, logging, and a Forest Service Office. The school had 300 students enrolled in K-12, and had “served as the town’s heart and focal point for the community” since the 1940s.
Environmental battles beginning in the 1980s resulted in the shut-down of logging on almost all public forest land in Oregon. Alsea now has no timber mills, no logging, no Forest Service office, no “full service” down town, and a population of only 800.
When the Alsea school district hired Thielman as the superintendent and principal in 2011, the school had only 117 students. Nevertheless, Thielman was committed to keeping the school alive by attracting open-enrollment students from surrounding school districts. “The economic engine may have left, but the heart of the community still beats with the school,” Thielman told Watchdog Arena.
Thielman believed that a small rural school district could compete with its neighbors if the culture shifted to generate real academic results and if students from neighboring districts were free to attend such schools. He set about making the Alsea school attractive to out-of-district students.
Thielman and the school district showcased Alsea’s comprehensive use of individual student achievement data to guide academic instruction, their modern Science department led by Rozeanne Steckler, PhD, their vibrant journalism program, and 120 online high school courses – a necessity for a rural district with so few students. Over 50 people attended the first meeting the school district organized for interested parents, and by the end of that meeting, 17 non-resident students had enrolled in Alsea’s elementary school.
Later, Thielman began a bussing service to communities within an hour drive of Alsea in order to transport more students. The Alsea school has grown from 117 students to 173 students. The district holds school for four days a week and 8.5 hours per day with a student-to-teacher ratio of 13:1. If a student is not suited to the Alsea educational style, they are free to transfer to neighboring districts.
The district is now the largest employer in Alsea with 13 unionized teachers and 21 other employees. It serves as a community center, hosting school-related events, memorials, basketball tournaments, carnivals, and more.
Although state and federal funding travels with the student, such funding generally covers only about 2/3 of education costs per student. Alsea is managing to educate students without the additional funding from property taxes and levies from the open-enrollment students’ home districts. Thielman says the Alsea community is very committed to the school district and provides support through donations, fundraising, and attending student events and games.
Since open enrollment’s passage, the entrenched educational establishment in Oregon has fought to eliminate choice and competition, and tensions with neighboring school districts have grown. Portland Public Schools, with 48,000 students and 81 schools, does not open any slots for students to transfer into. However, under the law, they are still prevented from denying students who are resident in their district from choosing a school out of the PPS District which does offer openings.
The efforts to overturn open enrollment began in 2012 when state Rep. Ben Unger (D-Hillsboro) wrote a bill to repeal the law, which failed to pass. When that failed, the educational establishment introduced and passed amendments to weaken open enrollment including provisions prohibiting open enrollment schools from busing and advertising.
Currently, open enrollment is scheduled to sunset in 2017. State Rep. Julie Parrish (R-Tualatin/West Linn) has sponsored a bill to extend the sunset date. She told Watchdog Arena that if parents and students could testify, legislators would see how successful open enrollment has been in districts where it has been allowed some freedom to work. The Parrish bill to extend open enrollment has not been scheduled for a hearing, and is unlikely to get a hearing given the current membership of the Oregon’s House Committee On Education.
Instead, Senate Bill 709 would absorb open enrollment into inter-district transfers, which would allow home districts to veto all transfers. If passed, SB 709 would effectively gut open enrollment, well before it is scheduled to sunset in 2017.
How will small districts like Alsea respond? Thielman says the Alsea school district is now considering “biting the bullet and chartering the district.” He says, “Charter schools enjoy federal protections from the inter-district transfer police. They have year-round open enrollment with no transportation reimbursement restrictions.”
Even if Alsea converts to a charter, Thielman still believes open enrollment will have served an important purpose. “Alsea stands a model of education innovation. We had a choice to continue to shrink and wither, or change and grow. We chose change. In order to do open enrollment, we were forced to speak of our strengths, and then build on them. This strategy is one that works and is entirely repeatable in other schools/communities.”
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.