Study finds students choosing schools outside of assigned campus at high rates

In Madison Elementary School District, nearly half of the students enrolled in one of its eight campuses live outside the district boundaries.

For the Central Phoenix district, that’s nearly 3,000 students who choose a Madison school.

A recent open enrollment study shows that Madison’s open enrollment numbers are the norm. Nearly one in two students in Maricopa County do not attend their assigned district school, according to research by the Center for Student Achievement and Matthew Hom, a Yale PhD candidate.

The study mapped students in nine elementary school districts in Maricopa County and the enrollment in public charter schools within those boundaries. It did not include online or private schools.

“Choice permeates Arizona and especially the Valley,” said Matt Gress, Madison Elementary School District governing board member. “It’s agnostic and incredibly easy to use. There is no stigma in choosing what’s right for your child. It’s actually expected.”

Matthew Ladner, an education policy analyst who has written extensively about school choice and academic performance in public schools, called the findings “groundbreaking.”

“This is the first study that proves open enrollment and school choice are pervasive,” he said. “Families in Arizona have the opportunity to find a good fit — whether it’s a district, charter or private school — and that’s very positive.”

Choice in Arizona has also lead to quality schools and academic improvements, Ladner said. Arizona is only one of two states that has made statistically significant improvements on the National Assessment for Education Progress, or NAEP.

“School choice is the elephant in the room when it comes to academic performance,” he said. “People don’t have to stay in a school that doesn’t work for their child. Instead families have the opportunity to find a school that meets their child’s needs, which I believe is having an impact on school quality.”

Nearly 25 years after Arizona Governor Fife Symington signed open enrollment and charter school legislation into law, school districts and charter schools are working to attract and retain families, which have paved the groundwork for the school choice state we are today.

Students rehearsing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Madison Center for the Arts

At Madison, the district just completed a state-of-the-art 920-seat performing arts theater for its students. Its schools have specialty programs such as language immersion, International Baccalaureate and performing arts.

“We’ve been here for 125 years and I think that Madison is responding to the changing educational landscape. Parents and kids expect a wide array of options because we know that one size doesn’t fit all,” said Gress. “We’re not afraid to compete with schools. Our goal is to be a phenomenal option for students and continue to be the school choice families make.”

Megan Gilbertson

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