It turns out that public schools aren't actually free and open to all. One Texas district, Lovejoy Independent School District, has been collecting tuition from students living outside of district boundaries since 2013—with current annual rates sitting as high as $14,000 per student. The district only offers a limited number of spots to paying outsiders and selects finalists based on their academic performance and disciplinary records. Even then, the lucky students still have to reapply each year, there is no guarantee that their siblings will be admitted, and transportation isn't provided.
Lovejoy isn't alone, as districts around the country use a similar tactic. Just in Texas, the school districts in Sharyland, Rockwall, and Magnolia all have their own policies demanding thousands from students coming from outside the district. They justify these restrictive policies and fees by arguing that outside students don't contribute to the district's local tax base. This is true—but it points to a deeper problem. The current public school system only gives freedom to wealthy families that can afford to get their child enrolled in the right school, making school choice a luxury rather than a basic right.
Texas law allows districts to be selective with transfers, to cap them, or to shut them out entirely. Unsurprisingly, these types of restrictions cater to political motivations over student needs—hurting disadvantaged families the most. A 2017 study of Ohio, which has restrictive enrollment policies similar to those in Texas, found that wealthy suburban school districts are far less likely than other types of districts to accept students from outside district boundaries. The report refers to these districts as "walled" districts because they surround the state's largest inner cities—such as Cleveland and Cincinnati—and trap disadvantaged students in those inner-city districts.
When districts do accept outside students, they often do so only as long as it benefits them financially. Lovejoy first rolled out its inter-district enrollment program in 2013 because it wanted to generate more revenue. Ted Moore, the district superintendent at the time, announced the strategy as a way to counteract a recent $2.5 million cut in state funding. He further added that the district would "get out of the transfer business" once Lovejoy's schools were filled by district residents. It's understandable that schools would be concerned about their bottom lines, but the perverse incentives created by this government system favor those least in need.
It doesn't have to be this way. Many states offer open enrollment policies. Florida, for instance, implemented a choice-friendly law in 2017 that requires districts to accommodate outside students. Any schools in the state with the space must let kids in via a lottery process, and must give priority to certain types of disadvantaged students. Those schools are not allowed to charge tuition.
Another way to knock down the perverse incentives that restrict choice for disadvantaged students is to reduce the school system's reliance on local tax revenues. Local dollars usually don't follow students across district lines, making it so that many districts—especially property-wealthy ones that don't receive as much state funding—have little incentive to accept outsiders. States that reform their school finance systems so that they are less dependent on local taxes often see families choosing schools outside their home districts—a phenomenon that's been observed in Indiana. Once local revenues stop being a factor, state dollars more easily follow students across district lines—giving educational freedom to more families.
Even with the high tuition rates and the competitive application process, the Lovejoy Independent School District reports that its open enrollment program is still popular. One look at the district's accolades explains it all—it boasts test performance scores in the top 1 percent of Texas districts, and provides a robust college preparatory curriculum. While it's hard not to be happy for the families that do get access to a quality education, that access shouldn't be determined by a public school system that favors deep pockets and political leverage.