Clients Not Conscripts

Last year the state legislature enacted HB 3681, allowing public school students to freely transfer from one district to another. Under the new law, if a school district is willing to accept a transfer student, the home district for that student can no longer veto the change.

School districts were required to announce by March 1 whether they would be accepting transfers for the next school year, and families then have a one-month period to change schools. Some communities embraced the new law. Alsea school district, for example, printed up a new brochure, opened up 70 seats, and even offered transportation services to out-of-district students. Gaston is advertising for new students in local newspapers.

Other districts tried passive resistance, in the hope that if enough districts refused to accept transfers, local school monopolies would be preserved. But as the deadline approached, it became clear that this strategy entailed great risk: if they rejected incoming transfers but were powerless to stop exiting students, districts could face long-term enrollment declines.

At the last minute most districts opted in to the new market. West Linn-Wilsonville school district, which in one recent year denied 50 students their requests to transfer out, offered 255 new spots to interested students. In Washington County, six out of seven school districts chose to participate and collectively offered 687 seats, while grandfathering in 493 students who are currently transfers.

It’s a cliché, but still true: incentives always matter. Under HB 3681, students are now customers, and school districts have to satisfy them. All students will be better off next year as a result.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.