The Ashland School District made the right decision in opting to approve open enrollment in Ashland schools for out-of-district students. But it should approach the opportunity with caution and look out not only for its own interests, but also those of neighboring districts.

The Ashland School District made the right decision in opting to approve open enrollment in Ashland schools for out-of-district students. But it should approach the opportunity with caution and look out not only for its own interests, but also those of neighboring districts.

Passed in the waning hours of the Oregon Legislature's 2011 session, House Bill 3681 allows school districts to accept students from outside districts without either the district or the student required to prove that there is a need for a transfer. The measure, which received little discussion or debate, requires districts to declare by March 1 whether they would agree to an open enrollment policy.

Many districts, including Medford, Phoenix-Talent and Grants Pass, have opted against open enrollment. Ashland, however, voted to approve it.

That's understandable. Despite its stellar reputation, the district has seen a 14-year decline in student numbers — a trend most link to higher-than-average housing costs in the city — and the closure of two elementary schools in the past decade.

Ashland School District almost certainly stands to gain by opening its doors to outside students. In a recent survey, 46 of 72 non-district families questioned said they were "highly likely" to enroll their children in the Ashland district.

And for good reason. For decades, Ashland has led Southern Oregon — and the vast majority of the state — in test scores and academic achievement. It's a record to be proud of and an academic environment that many parents and students understandably would like to be part of.

But there's a dark side to the open enrollment option, and districts like Ashland's neighbor, Phoenix-Talent, are the most likely to find themselves in that shadow. Across the state, there will no doubt be dozens of similar cases in which smaller districts with fewer resources will find themselves lacking even more resources as students and funding are siphoned away.

Oh, yes, in the end this is mostly about money, about $6,000 per student in state funding to be more specific. Ashland has been on the painful receiving end of declining state funding as its student population dropped, and faced the prospect of its headcount dropping by an additional 60 students in the fall.

Districts are allowed to set limits on how many students they would allow in through open enrollment and must set up a lottery if there are more applications than spots available. But once a student is accepted — and there can be no screening beyond ensuring they meet basic requirements — the district is responsible for that student through high school, unless the student chooses to leave.

Ashland has set its optimal level at just over 100 students. That could bring in more than $600,000. But district officials should be mindful that is $600,000 that neighboring districts won't receive. As educators, they undoubtedly are concerned for the welfare of all students, and not just their own. So there is a responsibility not to jeopardize the stability of other districts and the educations of those districts' children.

Given the opportunity by the state, Ashland has made a choice that likely will improve its financial situation. Now it needs to ensure that it uses that opportunity wisely, and fairly.