Options for moves limited with open enrollment

Invited to shop around for a better school next year, Clark County students on Tuesday learned what options are available.

High-performing Green Valley High and magnet schools such as Northwest Career and Technical Academy, for example, won't be taking transfers. In fact, only 33 percent of high schools, 81 percent of middle schools and 19 percent of elementary schools will have open enrollment next year.

On Tuesday, the district began taking applications under an open enrollment plan for the 2011-12 school year.

The plan doesn't allow transfers to magnet schools or those already at capacity. Because of that, many of the available options are schools that might not be seen as desirable because of quality or location.

Mojave and Western high schools could accommodate as many as 400 more students next year. Neither school has ever met the annual benchmarks of No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law. Their graduation rates are below 60 percent.

Not all of the schools offered under the district's open enrollment plan are underachievers.

Boulder City High has earned "exemplary" status under No Child Left Behind for the past two years. It could accommodate 279 additional students next year.

But to attend in Boulder City, Las Vegas Valley students must be willing to go the distance by car: The district will not provide transportation for open-enrollment students.

Open enrollment is aimed at creating competition between schools, prompting them to boost quality to attract mobile students.

School "choice is about a free-market spirit, which has been lacking in public education," Superintendent Walt Rulffes said. "If we don't do it, someone else will, which is why charter schools, vouchers, distance education and home schools are growing in popularity. Public education must do or die."

Rulffes, whose last day as superintendent is Dec. 17, said, "Choice will be more appealing to the more entrepreneurial principals and faculty, (who) will craft programs and services around student needs and interests."

The open-enrollment plan grows out of a two-year pilot program in the northeast valley. The new program has School Board support, though the board considered the plan to be an operational issue that did not require a vote, Rulffes said.

Victor Joecks, deputy communication director for the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute, applauds the effort as a step in the right direction but is worried that it could be set up for failure.

"If it's a limited way to put out school choice and then come back later and say, 'Look, no one's using it,' the policy becomes an excuse to say, 'School choice doesn't work here,' " Joecks said.

Linda Young, a School Board member, noted that families prefer neighborhood schools. District officials said only 3 percent of students left "failing schools" for better schools even when transportation is provided under No Child Left Behind.

Young, however, sees open enrollment benefiting single parents who want to send their children to a school closer to the home of a relative, where they could go for after-school supervision.

"I get many requests like this," Young said.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.