Having a Voice and Making a Choice in Where Your Child Goes to School

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Children are entitled to a free public education in the school district where they live.  In Iowa, a parent can also enroll a child in a different school district. (This article will use the term “parent.” However, someone else could make the decisions, such as a guardian.) Enrolling a child in a different school district is called “open enrollment.” 


How Do I Open Enroll My Child?

A school district must give notice to parents about open enrollment by September 30 each year.  The notice needs to include information about open enrollment, transportation assistance, and possible loss of athletic eligibility.  If a child enrolls after September 30, the school district must still provide this notice to the family. 


The process involves two districts. The first is the “resident district,” where you live. The second is the “receiving district,” where you want to open enroll. To begin, fill out an application form. You can get the form from the school district’s central office.  You can also get the form from the Iowa Department of Education website: 

https://www.educateiowa.gov/pk-12/options-educational-choice/open-enrollment.  The completed form must go to both the resident district and receiving district.


NOTE:  Do you want to enroll more than one child?  If so, a separate application must be submitted for each child.

An open enrollment application can be submitted at any time.

What About Transportation?

Generally, the parents are responsible for transportation to the receiving school district. However, for low-income families, transportation assistance may be available (provided the two school districts share a border).  The resident district may:

  • (1) provide transportation for the student to a bus stop on the bus route of the receiving district, or
  • (2) allow the receiving district to enter the resident district to pick up the open enrolled student (if the receiving district agrees), or
  • (3) provide a parent reimbursement for transportation expenses.

How Long Does Open Enrollment Last?

Once a student is open enrolled, you don’t have to re-apply each year.  Open enrollment continues until:

  • graduation (or the student drops out of school), or
  • the student enrolls in a different school district or private school.

If a child is temporarily placed elsewhere, that does not end open enrollment.  This could include a temporary placement in foster care, juvenile detention center, treatment facility or the like.  When the child returns, the child will resume classes in the receiving district (unless the child has been enrolled elsewhere).


May a student who requires special education programs or services take advantage of open enrollment? 

Yes. However, the receiving district can refuse the request if it does not have an appropriate special education instructional program for the student or does not have adequate classroom space.


For What Reasons Can a School District Deny an Open Enrollment Request?

Applications may be lawfully denied for any of the reasons below.


  • The district does not have the appropriate special education program.
  • The application would adversely affect the district’s implementation of a court-ordered desegregation plan.
  • There is not classroom space for the student at the receiving school district.  However, if a school district says there is not enough space for your child, the school board must base the decision on an "insufficient classroom space" policy.
  • The student is under suspension or expulsion from his/her current school district. However, once the student is reinstated by the resident district, that would remove the disqualification.


How Does the Decision Process Work?

The application must be sent to the receiving and resident districts.

The superintendent of the receiving district can be authorized to approve the application. The school board must make the decision to deny an application.  School board decisions will be made at a school board meeting.  You can find out from the district the date of the meeting when your application will be considered. You have the right to attend the meeting. If you want to speak, ask to be put on the agenda. You can do this by contacting the school's administrative office. If you are not on the agenda, there is still limited time for members of the public to speak. Ask in advance that your comments and those of the board be recorded. Without a recording, there will be no easy way to prove what happened, if you want to appeal. You may want to bring your own recorder, just in case. Within five days of board action, you must be notified of the decision.


How Can I Challenge an Open Enrollment Denial?

Most of the time you will have to go to court to challenge an open enrollment denial.  To file in court, you would likely need an attorney to help you.  You should seek legal advice right away. There may be a very short deadline, usually 30 days from the date of the school board decision.  The court would decide if the school board acted lawfully.  There is no hearing. The court just looks at what the board did. That is why it is so important to have a tape recording of the school board meeting where the board discussed your application.

Where Can I Get More Information About Open Enrollment?


  1. Visit the Iowa Department of Education website at https://educateiowa.gov/.  The open enrollment page is at https://www.educateiowa.gov/pk-12/options-educational-choice/open-enrollment


  1. For open enrollment issues relating to special education, you could contact

(1) The ASK Resource Center (Parent Training and Information Center of Iowa) at 515-243-1713 or toll free at 1-800-450-8667, or go to their website:  https://www.askresource.org/

(2) Disability Rights Iowa, for advice or advocacy for persons with disabilities.  Their online intake page is:  https://disabilityrightsiowa.org/contact-disability-rights-iowa/let-us-help/  Their phone number is:  1-800-779-2502.

  1. Look at your local school policies. Most are posted on a district website or you can get them from the school administration.


Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275.
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Jan 25, 2023
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