Last week, a father told a Texas Senate committee how his family had made the big decision to move their two children to a neighboring school district. As they explored the option of transferring to another district, they were assured that attending district campuses would be free, like their home district schools.
Then they found out, several months into the switch, that they probably would have to pay tuition to stay in their new public schools the next year. Near the end of that first school year, they learned that next year’s tuition would be $4000 per student. That was the new reduced rate for returning students; new transfer students would be charged $9000, and parents have no guarantee that rates won’t rise in the future.
This saddened me, in part because I’ve worked in that district before. It also exposes some key—and fixable—complications to the process of transferring schools in Texas. Fortunately, the Legislature is currently considering fixes to those complications.
There are two reasons Texans should support making student transfers easy and predictable: First, it’s good for school districts. Second (and more important), it’s good for kids.
As a school superintendent, I’m used to constantly checking a school’s bottom line. I work with school administrations and board members to make sure we’re maximizing our revenue on behalf of our students and staff.
In districts I’ve served, I’ve been thrilled when we could offer available seats to students who wanted to transfer to our district. Here’s why: they bring in full formula funding for seats that would otherwise have been empty. That’s thousands of dollars per student added to district revenues, without any significant new costs.
Not only does this benefit transferring students, it benefits resident students by bringing in additional resources—or in the case of recapture districts, keeping local tax revenues in the district. And for districts with declining enrollment, like one that I led, it can keep dwindling campuses open.
Districts who don’t have a good process for admitting transfer students are leaving money on the table. Receiving transfer students can help offset enrollment losses and help your district grow.
It bewilders me when I see districts using an outdated state authorization to charge students for the privilege of filling an empty seat. I do think it’s important for a student to qualify for an out of district transfer with passing grades and no behavioral concerns. That being said, these students are so enthusiastic about a district that they’re uprooting from where they were before to come there, the state funding system treats them like a resident student, and the district fills an empty seat. Why stack tuition, of any size, on top of that package?
Sadly, the answer is simple: Districts do it because they can, not because they must. That’s why, when I took the reins of a district charging $14,000 directly to transferring high school students per year (on top of formula funding), I started the process of reducing those rates down to $0. Those students were already bringing in enough to pull their weight.
That leads us to the second reason: Receiving transfer students is the right thing to do for students.
As a public school system, why wouldn’t we want to help students find their best-fit district and campus? And if they are already looking for other school options, we should do everything we can to broaden their access to our great system of Texas public schools rather than just driving them away.
This becomes even more important when we look at research on students transfers. Across the country, research demonstrates that students tend to transfer primarily for academic reasons—and they tend to transfer to higher-performing districts. That’s a trend we should want to encourage.
Even better, research also indicates that districts that lose a significant enough number of students tend to improve their performance and academic offerings. It’s not surprising that this can result in reducing the number of students who leave that district. When parents have choices, district behavior changes—for the better.
It’s encouraging to see the Texas Legislature exploring ways to improve and streamline the student transfer process, including ending the practice of charging tuition. We should make transferring as transparent, predictable, and welcoming as possible for Texas kids. It’s good for districts and good for kids; I call that good for Texas.