In carefully measured tones, a dad pleaded with the Lovejoy ISD school board not to disrupt his sons’ lives and educations. Like many other families, he had enrolled his fifth and third graders in the Lovejoy Scholars program for out-of-district students.

“I’d like to thank Lovejoy for welcoming our family; our kids are thriving in the Lovejoy district. Our sons’ best friends are in their classes, we’ve joined the Boy Scout pack, we attend the football games,” he said in a recent board meeting.

But now, he added, Lovejoy is planning to charge tuition for families who are out-of-district—as much as $9,000 per year per student.

“That’s creating a lot of stress and anxiety and uncertainty,” the dad explained. “I just ask that when you make these decisions, remember we are part of the Lovejoy community. We know there are financial issues. We want to be part of the solution, but we don’t want to bear the brunt of the solution.”

School boundaries are important. “What’s the school district here?” is a question every residential real estate agent must be ready to answer. By determining families’ assigned schools, school district borders (and the campus-specific attendance zones within them) wield significant influence on the futures of Texas students. Even in the 21st century, geography, justly or not, forges children’s destinies.

But sometimes, borders can be crossed. In the 2018-2019 school year, 2.6% of Texas students attended public schools in districts they don’t reside in. Research indicates that their reasons are most often the quality of the academic instruction.

That number is substantially lower than states with more robust “open enrollment” policies. For comparison, approximately 6% of students in Colorado attend schools outside their resident district. In Florida, which has large countywide districts, 9.6% of students attend schools outside either their attendance zone or resident district.

What’s happening in Lovejoy is currently legal. Districts are authorized, by Texas Education Code § 25.038, to charge tuition in specific transfer circumstances. Though full state formula funding does follow the student to their new district, some local property tax revenues don’t adjust.

Yet for one year, when the Lovejoy school board expected legislation to limit the collection of tuition from public school parents, the Lovejoy Scholars program charged nothing. Lovejoy ISD set its budget accordingly: For the 2021-22 school year, the district still accepted transfer students, did not charge tuition, and capped the number of transfer students it accepted at 350.

When the Legislature did not take the expected action, Lovejoy ISD reversed course. In March 2022, the board voted to reinstate tuition, including for existing transfer students. New transfer students will be charged $9,000 in tuition for the 2022–23 school year, in addition to full state formula funding, and returning transfer students and their siblings will be charged $4,000.

But the thing is, Lovejoy needs students. Last year, the district faced a $5 million budget shortfall, and administrators publicly identified pandemic-related declines in attendance as the primary culprit. State formula funding for more students, with or without additional tuition stacked on top, was far better than empty seats.

What can the Legislature do?

First, we need transparency. Transfer rules and tuition policies vary from district to district, and there’s no way for parents and policymakers to access the information easily. A state-authorized comprehensive study would help us all understand the size and scope of the problems.

Next, Texas should reform its state policies to allow Texas students to access available district seats without the added burden of unpredictable and prohibitive tuition rates.

Finally, we need to look at transportation, which can be an issue—especially for low-income students who wish to transfer to a better school district. Texas law allows districts to provide transportation for some transfer students, but doesn’t require them to do so. Lawmakers should consider avenues to support reliable, accessible transportation solutions for students.

No two children are alike. Texas public education should reflect that fact by giving all families the opportunity to choose which school best fits their needs. Lines drawn on a map before today’s parents were even born should not fence in the futures of today’s students.