With Texas on the brink of a legislative revolution aimed at empowering parents, the forthcoming Open Enrollment reforms promise to overhaul the current public education landscape. However, as state leaders make strides to amplify parental choice, they must guarantee meaningful student access to open seats in Texas public schools.
Under the current system, students can apply to transfer to a public school campus in a different district, provided the district has a policy that permits such transfers. Nevertheless, during the 2018-19 academic year, only 2.6% of Texas students were successful in their transfer endeavors. This rate is starkly lower than in states with more expansive open enrollment policies, such as Florida, where district laws mandate the acceptance of a child into any school with an open seat, leading to 10% of their public school students being transfer-ins.
The disappointing transfer rates in Texas are particularly unfortunate, considering both Texas and national data consistently show that transferring students generally move to higher-performing districts. The scarcity of successful transfers suggests that many students are missing out on the opportunity to improve their educational outcomes.
One of the most contentious aspects of the current system is that public school districts can charge students exorbitant fees—potentially tens of thousands of dollars per student per year—to occupy an empty seat, even though these students also contribute to the district’s funding through state formulas. This statute, unamended since 1995, coupled with the ability for districts to fluctuate tuition annually, introduces a degree of financial unpredictability that can be distressing for transferring families.
Moreover, districts still have the authority to screen transferring students based on factors like academic performance and attendance history, which can restrict access to quality education. An additional element of uncertainty is the requirement for students to reapply for transfers annually, even when there is space available for them at their campus.
Open Enrollment Reforms: A New Path Forward
The proposed Open Enrollment reforms aim to eliminate these hurdles. Importantly, resident students will not be denied entry to their zoned schools due to the reforms. Transfer students will continue to fill available seats not taken by resident students.
While districts would not be mandated to refuse applications from students under suspension or expulsion, they could do so. Some proposals also allow districts to revoke a student’s transfer in specific cases. Importantly, open enrollment and parent empowerment would not affect the University Interscholastic League’s (UIL) governance of student participation in sports.
One major misconception about open enrollment is that it requires districts to build additional facilities or hire new staff. On the contrary, this policy is designed to generate extra revenue for districts with open seats, thus aiding their budgets.
Current statutes that dictate the fiscal impact on school districts during the student transfer process would remain unchanged. Intra-district transfers would be financially neutral, while inter-district transfers would count towards the receiving district’s formula funding in the same way as resident students. Open enrollment would not compel districts to accept students beyond their capacity or to provide transportation for transferring students—though they could offer transportation under certain circumstances.
Progressive Texas Districts & National Examples
Several Texas districts are already pioneering open enrollment policies. Dallas ISD, for instance, has created a SchoolFinder guide to inform families about school options and potential openings. Midland ISD has streamlined the application process, enabling students to apply to multiple district campuses simultaneously. San Antonio ISD has even opened a portfolio of schools offering seats to students across the county and the surrounding area. Some districts, such as Eanes ISD, have opted to admit transfer students without charging them, demonstrating a clear shift towards a more inclusive and accessible public education system.
Looking beyond Texas, states like Florida and Oklahoma have implemented successful open enrollment policies. Florida’s policy allows students to transfer to any public school with open seats, while Oklahoma publicly reports data on transfer applications, approvals, and rejections, promoting transparency and accountability.
These Open Enrollment reforms are a promising stride towards an improved Texas education system. By learning from the successes of other states and fostering a culture of transparency and accessibility, Texas could empower parents and provide better educational opportunities for all students.
The Texas House Committee on Public Education will convene this morning, Thursday, May 18, 2023 at 9:30 am. They are expected to vote on SB 418 which relates to open enrollment.