Here’s the bad news: school district boundaries restrict educational opportunities for Texas’s 5.4 million students. Here’s the good news: a handful of common-sense reforms would remove key barriers for families seeking alternative education environments for their kids. That’s the main conclusion of our recent study on the Lone Star State’s student-transfer law, in which we evaluated student-transfer data and school district policies across the state.
In recent years, states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, and Florida have adopted cross-district open-enrollment policies that give families easier access to schools outside of their residentially assigned districts. But Texas has lagged behind these leaders in reforming its student-transfer law (only a small percentage of students successfully cross district lines) and is missing out on potentially massive benefits from open enrollment.
We found, for instance, that when given the opportunity, Texas families are more likely to transfer to higher-performing school districts. In the 2018-2019 school year, about 45,000 students transferred to a school district rated at least one letter grade above their residentially assigned district; 91% of students who left C-rated school districts enrolled in districts with an A or B rating.
We also found evidence that student transfers are promoting parent-driven accountability, with school districts rated C, D, and F losing nearly three times more transfer students than they gained. In total, 18,956 students transferred out of these underperforming school districts, showing that parents will vote with their feet when given options.
These findings align with research in other states. For example, an analysis of Florida’s open-enrollment policy found that over 90% of transfer students opted to attend A- or B-rated school districts, while a Wisconsin study showed a positive link between districts’ proficiency rates on state exams and the number of transfer students they enrolled.
These trends are encouraging, but Texas is another story. Our findings show that only 2.6% of students in the state attended school in a non-assigned district in the 2018-29 school year. By comparison, states such as Wisconsin and Colorado—which, unlike Texas, have broader open-enrollment policies in place—boast transfer rates of 9% and 6%, respectively.
Texas should be doing more to provide families with opportunities across district lines. State policymakers can remove barriers for families by pursuing three policy reforms that would modernize the student-transfer law.
First, lawmakers should adopt a comprehensive open-enrollment policy that ensures all families have access to available seats, regardless of where they live. Currently, not all districts welcome transfer students, and those that do often consider academic achievement such as test scores and course grades in admissions decisions. States such as Florida, Arizona, and Wisconsin have protections in place so that districts can reject transfer applications only for legitimate reasons such as capacity or expulsions.
Next, policymakers should remove financial obstacles that put open enrollment out of reach for low- and middle-income families. Many Texas school districts charge transfer tuition, even though Texas’s education-funding system provides additional revenue for transfer students to the receiving school. For example, in the 2022-23 school year, Lovejoy ISD will charge transfer students $9,000 while collecting an estimated $7,220 per student from the state, double-dipping on the backs of families.
Lastly, while Texas’s system for reporting data on student transfers is more transparent than most states, it still has room for improvement. Policymakers should ensure that the Texas Education Agency reports key data, like the reasons school districts rejected transfers, and also require school districts to post their open-enrollment policies online.
Each year, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction produces an open-enrollment report for the governor and legislature, detailing key data for every school district such as the number of transfer applications received, transfers approved, and reasons for rejection. This report shines a light on district practices and has helped lawmakers improve the state’s policy over time.
Open enrollment would not only unleash opportunities for families but would also prove popular with voters and build upon other school-choice policies that Texas is considering. A recent poll conducted by EdChoice and Morning Consult found that 76% of parents overall, 72% of Democrats, and 69% of Republicans support cross-district open enrollment.
Open enrollment is low-hanging legislative fruit. Texas policymakers should act accordingly in 2023.