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Expanding School Choice through Open Enrolment: Lessons from British Columbia


  • Jane Friesen

    (Simon Fraser University)

  • Benjamin Cerf Harris

    (Simon Fraser University)

  • Simon Woodcock

    (Simon Fraser University)


Is expanding the scope for parents to choose among competing schools an effective policy lever for improving the quality of education? What lessons can we take from British Columbia’s experience with greater school choice? In 2002, British Columbia implemented a new policy that makes it easier for parents to opt out of their neighbourhood school. Along with the province’s rich administrative and test score data, the introduction of this “open enrolment” policy provides a rare opportunity to estimate the extent to which increased public school choice affects student achievement, concentrates minority students in enclave schools and promotes cream-skimming. Our results support several conclusions about British Columbia’s experience with open enrolment. First, the fact that many more parents succeeded in enrolling their children in out-of-catchment schools demonstrates that the policy had a meaningful impact on the public school choice opportunities available to many families. Second, the evidence suggests that open enrolment contributed to the development of important academic skills, but the magnitude of this impact depended on the geographic concentration of public schools. In the Lower Mainland, 10 to 15 percent of neighbourhoods are dense enough to have generated fairly substantial improvements in academic achievement. The gains in these neighbourhoods were equivalent to reducing class size by between two and three students; compared to class-size reductions, open enrolment is likely to be a fairly cost effective strategy for improving student achievement as measured by test scores. In the remaining neighbourhoods, where school density is lower, the impact of open enrolment on test scores was quite small. Finally, open enrolment did little to either segregate or integrate Lower Mainland students according to their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. There is also little evidence that popular schools engaged in creamskimming high-achieving students. These generally positive results might encourage policymakers in other jurisdictions to give fresh thought to introducing greater school choice into their public education systems.

Suggested Citation

  • Jane Friesen & Benjamin Cerf Harris & Simon Woodcock, 2015. "Expanding School Choice through Open Enrolment: Lessons from British Columbia," C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, C.D. Howe Institute, issue 418, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:cdh:commen:418

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Clark Damon, 2010. "Selective Schools and Academic Achievement," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 10(1), pages 1-40, February.
    2. repec:mpr:mprres:6364 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Hanley Chiang, "undated". "How Accountability Pressure on Failing Schools Affects Student Achievement," Mathematica Policy Research Reports c58a3b537e324447b94a2bd41, Mathematica Policy Research.
    4. Chiang, Hanley, 2009. "How accountability pressure on failing schools affects student achievement," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 93(9-10), pages 1045-1057, October.
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    Cited by:

    1. Pierre Lefebvre & Philip Merrigan, 2020. "Les inégalités provinciales aux tests internationaux-nationaux de littéracie : Québec, Ontario et autres provinces canadiennes 1993-2018 [Provincial achievement gaps from literacy surveys conducted," Working Papers 20-02, Research Group on Human Capital, University of Quebec in Montreal's School of Management, revised Oct 2020.
    2. Pierre Lefebvre & Philip Merrigan, 2020. "Les inégalités provinciales aux tests internationaux-nationaux de littéracie : Québec, Ontario et autres provinces canadiennes 1993-2018 (Version révisée et augmentée octobre 2020)," CIRANO Working Papers 2020s-29, CIRANO.

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    More about this item


    Social Policy; Education;

    JEL classification:

    • I20 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - General
    • I21 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Analysis of Education
    • I28 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Government Policy


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