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031318 Open Enrolment

Morgan Burbach, a teacher at the DeWitt Central High School, and her husband have been trying to open enroll their son out of the Davenport school district, but have been denied because of Davenport's diversity plan.

For the fifth consecutive year, the number of open enrollment requests to leave the Davenport School District has hit triple digits.

A total of 114 requests for students to leave the district were filed by the March 1 deadline for the next school year, according to district data.

That's a bit down from last year, but the number of requests exceeds that of other districts in Scott County, even accounting for Davenport's larger size. Over the past five years, the trend is toward more requests to leave, compared to what it was between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years.

Declining enrollment has been a problem in Davenport for years, but the increase in requests has been noticeable lately.

Davenport has denied the vast majority the last few years, citing its diversity plan. But the future prospects for that option are in doubt, after a bill in the state legislature received added attention at the Statehouse this year. The bill did not survive, but could be back next year.

The district's diversity plan, one of five in the state, seeks to maintain the existing balance of students based on their socioeconomic status. Last year, just 16 of the 125 applications to leave were approved.

Morgan Burbach and her husband have tried to open enroll their 6-year-old son to the school district in DeWitt. Burbach, who is employed by that district, wants her son to be on the same calendar as she is. She adds the DeWitt district has better test scores.

"The bottom line is, I think it ought to be a parents' decision where to send their child," she said.

Burbach's son is currently enrolled in a private school and the family plans to move to DeWitt this summer.

The Davenport district defends its diversity plan. Superintendent Art Tate has said the district's makeup is a strength, and that it's good for all students to sit in class next to others who are not like them.

Supporters of the bill introduced in the state legislature said parents in the five districts with diversity plans shouldn't be denied the same open enrollment options others have. But critics said it would lead to more isolated school districts. The diversity plans were originally put in place to stop racial segregation in the schools, though a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbid using race as a factor in drafting those plans.

A more permissive policy would also have a financial impact. A Legislative Services Agency report earlier this year estimated Davenport, with the loss of 109 students, would lose about $762,000 if the bill would have been passed.

Drew Klein, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group that favors the proposal, said the added publicity about the issue has put it on the radar of some lawmakers. But it isn't clear what its future prospects might be.

The open enrollment requests in Davenport are just part of the district's declining enrollment problem. The district says it lost nearly 2,300 students since 1991-92. Currently, about 15,500 students are enrolled in the district. If state lawmakers were to kill Davenport's ability to reject open enrollment requests to leave for another district for diversity reasons, it's likely the number would go even higher, according to district officials.

Parents know the odds of the district approving requests to leave are long, so many don't apply. If that changed, there would be more applications, the district officials say.

Ralph Johanson, president of the Davenport school board, said the board recognizes there's an issue with the number of parents who want to send their kids elsewhere.

"I would say the board and the district are concerned about it," he said.

Johanson said he can't say for sure why it is happening. A number of factors could be at work, but he added things like reports of shots fired in the city likely has an impact.

The district says there also have been more applications for students to go to online schools, which are not located in the district. But it's not clear to what extent that is contributing to the increase. The district has implemented programs to allow for more students to take courses online.

School districts have until April 1 to grant or deny open enrollment requests.

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