An Ohio school district with a growing proportion of minority students says it will stop allowing white students to attend a neighboring district through open enrollment and take public funding with them because it wants to avoid becoming segregated.
The Liberty Local Schools board just north of Youngstown unanimously backed that resolution this week, stepping into the knotty intersection of education funding and race. It cited a nearly 30-year-old state law that districts can object to students enrolling elsewhere tuition-free “in order to maintain an appropriate racial balance.”
The situation is an unusual reversal of how racial issues typically play out in disputes over inter-district open enrollment, said University of Oklahoma professor Deven Carlson, who has studied such enrollment. Those disputes tend to be about affluent, mostly white districts trying to exclude students, Carlson said, not about lower-income, more diverse districts trying to retain them, as in this case.
It’s been tried before in Ohio and ended up in court. When Akron schools similarly tried to stop white students from switching to suburban schools two decades ago, a judge blocked enforcement of that effort when Akron was accused of discrimination, and the district quickly changed its policy to more broadly ban open enrollment out of the district.
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Liberty Superintendent Joe Nohra, who started looking at enrollment when he took that job this school year, found himself defending his district’s approach this week.
“Our board is not making a statement that we want to increase our white population or that we want an all-white school district,” said Nohra, who is white. “We just don’t want the school district to become segregated.”
Liberty gets about 125 students but loses about 250 through open enrollment. More than half the incoming students are minorities, while most of those leaving are white, Nohra said.
That contributes to racial disparities between the local population and the public schools’ student roster of a little over 1,000 students. Minorities now account for about half the students but less than 20 percent of residents in Liberty Township, according to state data and the most recent U.S. Census estimates from 2016.
But it’s not just about race. It’s also about money, because certain funding follows the kids.
Open enrollment away from Liberty diverts over $1.5 million in annual funding from a district that can’t afford to replace torn books or its dilapidated running track and likely couldn’t pass a local tax increase to help, Nohra said. That leaves the district about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland scrapping for students in a Rust Belt region whose population has been shrinking for years.
So it turned to an Ohio provision that says if the home district objects to local students enrolling in another public district, that district must refuse them unless tuition is paid.
Liberty loses the most students to Girard and targeted it in the resolution, alleging it aggressively pursues white students from Liberty. Board president Calvin Jones, who is black, took a softer tone, suggesting Liberty simply suffers negative effects as Girard strives for its best.
Girard school board president Mark Zuppo said his district doesn’t do targeted recruiting and welcomes any students who choose to attend as long as they’re in good standing and the school has room.
“I don’t care what color they are,” said Zuppo, frustrated to be talking about race at all.
He suggested Liberty should evaluate why so many of its students leave.
Liberty officials say they don’t have all those answers, but race appears to be one factor. Some families have directly said or implied that Liberty has become “too diverse” too quickly, but others have said they value the diversity, Nohra said.
By contrast, Girard schools have a significantly higher proportion of white students. They also get higher state marks than Liberty in categories such as academic achievement and growth and improving literacy among young readers, according to last year’s district report cards.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Liberty students who already attend Girard would be affected by the resolution.
Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Education said it’s seeking more information about the matter.
Associated Press journalists John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Larry Fenn in Seattle contributed to this report.