The Texas legislature is now in a special session on education called by Gov. Greg Abbott, who is urging the Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass an expansive school choice bill.
While many rural House Republicans opposed elements of school choice during the previous legislative session, a recent report by the Texas House Select Committee on Educational Opportunity and Enrichment, signed by a bipartisan group of 10 Republicans and four Democrats, contained a critical recommendation that should be a vital element of any bill coming out of the special session: K-12 open enrollment, which lets students enroll in any public school that has an open seat available.
Texas’ existing residential assignment system unfairly assigns students to public schools based on where they live, inextricably tying housing and schooling together and creating educational barriers for many students. Highly ranked public schools are often located in expensive neighborhoods, and less affluent families are frequently priced out of those schools. Texas’ wealthiest public school districts often take additional steps, including charging costly tuition to transfer students attempting to attend their public schools to block interested students. For example, Lovejoy Independent School District, north of Dallas, charged transfer students from outside the district’s boundaries $9,000 to attend its public schools in the 2022-23 school year.
Allowing students to transfer to other public schools and preventing those schools from charging transfer students tuition would go a long way in giving Texas’ parents and students more school choice in ways that both Democrats and Republicans should support. Open enrollment lets parents and students pick public schools that best fit them, and 73% of 1,200 parents of school-aged children surveyed by Morning Consult in July said they support this policy.
Most of the 204,000 students participating in Texas’ current cross-district transfer program use it to access more highly ranked schools than the schools they’re residentially assigned to. State law, however, lets school districts reject transfer applicants for arbitrary reasons and doesn’t prevent charging tuition. These rules and lack of transparency allow public school districts to arbitrarily block students and use tuition to make it extremely difficult for low-income students to transfer to better public schools.
A robust, statewide open enrollment law would guarantee students access to available seats in all Texas public school districts and ban charging public school tuition. Schools could reject transfer students only for specific reasons, like being at full capacity. Moreover, the open enrollment process should be transparent so policymakers and parents can hold school districts accountable. School districts should be required to post the number of available seats at their schools by grade level on their websites, along with all their open enrollment policies and procedures. The Texas Education Agency should also publish an annual report, as Wisconsin does, showing why districts rejected transfer applicants.
As the 16 states already adopting open enrollment show, the policy would be a boon to all public school students. It would also benefit public schools. California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the state’s open enrollment program encouraged public schools to improve. In fact, after responding to parents’ feedback, some school districts that initially lost students through open enrollment reduced the flow of departing students, and others attracted new students.
In a finding that’s especially notable for Texas’ rural schools worried about school choice programs, the report showed that 78% of school districts participating in California’s open enrollment program are small, rural districts using open enrollment to “generate a notable share of their revenue.”
“Many of these small districts indicated they joined the program to gain economies of scale and keep their enrollment from dropping to a level where they would not be fiscally viable,” the Legislative Analyst’s Office showed.
Many Texas school districts anticipate declining student counts during the next decade, so open enrollment could help them stay afloat.
An open enrollment proposal recently introduced would let Texas students transfer to any public school with open seats without tuition fees. The bill also includes robust transparency provisions that would ensure that school districts operate fair open enrollment practices.
Open enrollment would greatly benefit the 6.2 million K-12 students in Texas. Students should not be locked into an assigned public school if it is failing, they’re being bullied, or it just isn’t the right academic or social fit for them.
Letting students transfer to any public school with an available seat is the type of school choice that all Texans should be able to get behind.
A version of this commentary first appeared in RealClearEducation.