School Choice

Some People Are Buying Their Way Into Top Public Schools. That's Not How School Choice Should Work

Every kid deserves choice.

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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.

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  1. Is this Reason, or the NYT?

    1. More and more, it sounds like the NYT – no?

      1. They want to attend those woke cocktail parties, after all.

  2. For a second there I confused the author with Christiaan Barnard, with an extra “a” – the heart surgeon.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christiaan_Barnard

  3. “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.”

    Yep, a lottery and discrimination (disguised as ‘certain types of disadvantaged students’) sound like sound libertarian policies.
    So does moving policy/taxes up from the local to the state level.

    1. “Every kid deserves choice”.

      Some apparently deserve choice more than others.

  4. The difference between “free” education and education you have to (at least in part) pay for, ought to be based on income not residence. Thus instead of giving residents free education and charging outsiders, public schools should charge people based on what they’re able to afford, from zero for your true pauper families to higher tuition for your rich people.

    People without children should kick in a bit, not just for the public schools but also for private-school choice programs for the poor – indeed, why not let the taxpayer decide whether to give dough to a local public-school district, a charter school, or a private school?

    1. (Naturally, if you’re paying tuition (public or private) for your own kids you should be exempt from school taxes altogether)

    2. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their need? Got it.

      1. Libertarian organizations have shown a certain degree of flexibility in endorsing school-choice programs, some of which involve taxpayer aid to poor students.

        But if means-testing is not only wrong but Marxist, then by all means let your Gadsden flag fly.

    3. Or. OR – stay with me here.

      We get out of this racket altogether and allow a million flowers to bloom.

      Let schools try different pricing schemes.

    4. Thus instead of giving residents free education and charging outsiders, public schools should charge people based on what they’re able to afford, from zero for your true pauper families to higher tuition for your rich people.

      The new creed of “libertarianism”: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

  5. Abolish government schools altogether and the “problem” is solved.

    1. Agreed. I’d rather give every student $14,000 to use at the school of their choice and abolish the entire education system. It makes schools accountable to parents and students rather than politicians.

      1. No it doesn’t. That ties schools even more closely to whatever govt agency will designate that entity as a ‘school’. Unless ‘Game Stop’ or ‘Bob’s Liquor Store’ are deemed ‘schools’ in a free for all to get that $14,000. And since it sounds like you’re making that a national $14,000 – then you’re just advocating a major revenue increase for the lobbyists/fixers on K Street.

        You’re also gonna incentivize cheating and create a database hacking/security problem. You gonna give $14,000 to a student – for as long as they are still in school (say hello 12 year high school programs) – wherever they move in the country – and track that info in a database that is now a honeypot for thieves.

  6. Rockwall and McKinney (Lovejoy ISD) are borderline suburban / borderline country. Dallas sprawls out to each but on the other side is nada … I’d guess people are buying their way into those districts from the outside

  7. So the schools recognize a real problem (fraud) where people ship their kids into better school districts and says “ok, just pay what you would have if you lived here” and people voluntarily transact to get into these better schools.

    What’s the problem?

    1. Nobody’s disadvantaging the advantaged! They’re allowing the advantage to use their advantages! Where’s the Handicapper General when you need xim?!

  8. They could always just rent a dirt-cheap apartment in the district, claim it as their residence, and enroll their kids there anyway. Their “summer home” would continue to be the base of operations. Nothing changes except the district pockets the cash directly and the housing crisis is stepped down by one apartment not being abused by a family rich enough to pay.

  9. People from Boston’s suburbs send their kids to private schools, and then have them take the Boston Latin exam. Then, they either use a fake address or buy a condo that they don’t live in. Boston residents pay the bill. It wouldn’t bother me if they moved into the city, but treating an exclusive public school like a private service to be bought by deception just isn’t right.

    1. They buy the condo and they pay the property taxes. As such, they are entitled to the services those taxes pay for. Where exactly is the “deception”?

  10. Much as I support it…this is the market.

    Supply and demand are a real thing. And since the best schools aren’t infinite in enrollment potential, there is a finite supply. So, demand is going to be high. Unless you wish to increase funding exponentially…which also has no history of alleviating these problems.

    There is not a fix for this. Every attempt will only alter the people able to manipulate the system. After all, in Communist states, you don’t see the families of the leadership struggling, do you?

    1. There is a fix. Get rid of the whole system. The money goes to the student, not the school. Parents are free to choose whatever school they want, can afford, and will accept their brat.

      1. Then the rich will still have the best shot at those schools. I’m not saying I care all that much…but since the critique is of this specific issue, the fix for it does not exist.

    2. True. And I’d bet everything that the *lottery* system in Florida is direct cash payments to administrators pockets, an entirely new market created for kickbacks.

      And yes, Chavez’s daughter billionaire status is the latest modern day example of the wonders of socialism.

    3. There is not a fix for this.

      Sure there is. You (and most Americans) just wouldn’t like it.

      The basic problem is this: folks with money can ensure their kids go to the “right” schools, and having that ability, they have no reason to continue sending money to the “wrong” schools. Everything else flows from this basic reality.

      So how do you fix it? Take away people’s ability to influence what school their kid goes to. This would, obviously, eliminate private schools, homeschooling, school choice, and everything else. It would also eliminate school districts (as being able to control the school your kid goes to by your zip code is a pretty classic tactic).

      So we’d probably be down to a random assignment system, where the pool of possible schools is every school in the union (no segregation along state lines either). Seeing as we’re talking about sending kids to schools in other states, that probably means boarding school for 99% of students.

      But like I said, this would never fly politically, even though on a practical level it would work.

  11. Every kid deserves choice.

    Is this going to be an ‘education is a human right!!11’ story?

    1. 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.

      Yes, yes it is. Everyone – you need to raise your taxes and be willing to pay to educate children on the other side of the country because some of them can’t afford to go to a different public school than the one in their district but other kids can.

      Its

      Not

      Fair

      Or. OR – we could say that the ability for some to buy their way out of their shitty school district is a plus and leave it at that as being the least destructive of the social fabric and the least penalizing of people who aren’t involved in the situation at all.

      . . . must give priority to certain types of disadvantaged students. Those schools are not allowed to charge tuition.

      Would that not then make them advantaged? And the ones with money are now disadvantaged? Either way the scales are being tipped. Its just the former way you don’t have the scale-tipping power concentrated in a small number of politically powerful people.

      1. 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.

        Notice with that that you never suggest ‘user-fees’. Which also follow students across district lines. And put the bill directly in the hands of those paying it. And only those using the services pay the bill. So they’re incentivized to ensure they’re getting value for their money.

        Your suggestion leaves all the incentive problems of the current system in place – you’re just allowing people the opportunity to overcrowd schools in high-tax districts now.

        1. Exactly!!! Parents do 100% of the paying and send their kids to whatever school they can afford. Giving parents yet more incentive to work hard, not have kids they can’t afford to educate and lowering education cost and raising education quality through competition and direct payment.
          Reason really is lurching hard left. Complaining about something that moves a public school system closer to a for profit business? Proposing moving funding from local to the more burecratic state? Emotional appeals about poor kids?

  12. I think tuition is the least bad idea and here’s why: Perhaps a family can rent or buy in a very low rent or rural district to save money for retirement, investing, etc, have one parent stay home to raise the kid/s (saving and parenting used to be a thing in the U.S.), and they want to use part of the savings on eduction for a child. A house payment in the good district, with property taxes, costs 4,000, then $5,000 with HOAs a month. A 3 bedroom townhouse or rural ranch in an outside district costs 900 a month taxes maybe no HOA, its a choice for the family.
    [for the record, I’d end the entire public ed system for real school choice]

    1. with taxes

  13. 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.

    A better way imo is to split the infrastructure spending of schools from the pedagogy spending of schools. Infrastructure spending does benefit the local homeowners by raising the land value whether they have a kid in the school or not. Some of that spending is variable/dependent on the number of students – but much is fixed. Local benefit means it should be locally funded – via taxes. And the school really should be accountable TO those local homeowners re whether the spending is increasing land values or not.

    Pedagogy stuff is highly variable and benefits the students. But it’s not as large a part of spending as people might imagine. That’s the sort of stuff that should be funded by user charges or an endowment or somesuch.

    1. Infrastructure spending does benefit the local homeowners by raising the land value whether they have a kid in the school or not.

      Raising the value of your property is not automatically a benefit to the property owner and people should stop thinking about it like that.

      In fact, it can be extremely disadvantageous to the property owner. To the point that they may then need to sell off that property because they can no longer afford the tax bill that comes with increased property value.

      For example. Build a . . . I don’t know, a HSR stop a quarter mile from my house. That would likely drive my property value up. But the HSR stop is of no use to me. I derive no benefit from that bit of infrastructure – but it comes with a cost to me.

      NOW – *other* people may benefit from it. For example, those who want easy access to high-speed rail may be interested in buying my property and they may bid the price up.

      But I’m not interested in moving. There’s now more traffic. The ‘character of the neighborhood’ has changed. There’s a lot of costs that come attached to that property value increase – to the point where those costs are greater than that value increase to me.

      Same situation if someone built another school nearby or made improvements to the existing schools. I derive no benefit to new schools or better school infrastructure *unless I am willing to leave the area* (sell my property and move – which, again, is a cost that needs to be debited against any money I might make from selling).

      And all that, of course, is made worse if I owe too much on my property. Then I won’t even see value increase in my pocket – it will go to the bank to pay off the mortgage when I sell or still to the bank if I walked away and they foreclosed.

      1. In fact, it can be extremely disadvantageous to the property owner. To the point that they may then need to sell off that property because they can no longer afford the tax bill that comes with increased property value.

        No it is not ‘extremely disadvantageous’ to a property owner to sell at a higher price than they would otherwise get absent someone else improving the land value. That’s just ludicrous.

        I agree that there may well be situations where YOU personally don’t see the benefit of monetizing that increase in value this year in order to pay a tax that is in a different form (cash rather than a property lien). In which case, that is exactly how markets and Hayekian knowledge work. You sell (realizing that increased value) to someone who values the reasons for that increased value enough to monetize it annually and pay taxes. Or maybe the local govt figures out the circumstances under which it can accept that tax in the form of a property lien rather than cash.

        What you are missing is the other side of that – when govt spending increases land value but is NOT paid for by land owners. That is a free lunch and like all such free lunches, the beneficiaries will simply demand (or accept) more spending with someone else paying for it. Actual accountability disappears.

        Connect that local infrastructure spending to local infrastructure financing and all of a sudden local landowners are going to start paying more attention to whether that spending proposal is just a boondoggle or is actually productive (increases land value). Maybe the school doesn’t need some Olympic-size swimming pool. Maybe the cafeteria/facilities/admin functions can be reorganized to involve kids a bit more in doing chores around school and learning responsibility in ways that can’t be taught in a classroom. Maybe school transportation costs can be reduced by making the streets around the school safer so more kids can walk/bike to school on their own – or hell via a bike bus. That sort of accountability is actually far more local than even the ‘school district’ level where we consolidated school governance up to after we eliminated individual ‘school boards’.

        I understand we Americans no longer even get this stuff. Where we abdicate all self-involvement in governance except for periodic ‘voting’ to assign that responsibility to someone else. And where we get dumber and dumber every election because we lose that knowledge of what self-governance and civic association actually is. ‘School choice’ as currently structured is just one more step along that road – giving responsibility to yet a different group of ‘other’ that promises all sorts of unicorns/ponies that we are now too dumb to understand.

  14. 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.

    That’s the New Libertarianism: progressive newspeak (“disadvantaged students”) plus endorsement of public schools plus forcible redistribution of money!

    I see Reason has given up any pretense of being a libertarian publication.

    1. Yep, it is now just, and only, an open borders advocacy club for the Koch brothers. In short, it is now a social justice underlay than primarily shills for a fascist “anything the corporate/government partner needs” agenda. Hence the open borders to drive labor costs down focus.

  15. So a school district has some, but not infinite, excess capacity, and in effect they auction it off. That looks like a concept Robert Poole would’ve promoted, Virginia Postrel would’ve at least not complained about, Manny Klausner would have publicized as an interesting idea, and now…?

  16. It is not fair to choose which schools to use. Especially in the case of the gap between the rich and the poor. Excellent teaching resources are always prepared for wealthy people. This is a question that the government has to consider. Money is sometimes omnipotent. https://www.jing.fm/iclip/u2a9o0y3o0r5o0w7_28-collection-of-money-clipart-no-background-make/

  17. Once you conclude that open borders are mandatory, these things happen

  18. Don’t wealthy people already live in good school districts?

  19. Alaska unfairly limits dividend payments from the Alaska Permanent Fund to residents.

  20. I often ask – When did Americans start going completely “insane” every-time the word “kid” was spouted? Every “kid” deserves a government sponsored Tonka truck by the tax-payers? But — That kid just got a new Tonka tractor!!! Oh, the disgrace!!! Taxpayers must buy ALL kids both a new Tonka truck and tractor!!!! It’s “for the kids” after all. As if they weren’t entitled enough in today’s day and age.

    I think of this mentality every-time I look at the Democrats lobbying for everyone to pay for their new house, car, healthcare, TV, dinner, etc… etc… I remember the “KIDS” who become adults very quickly and kids setup to believe that NO ONE must get anything they don’t get will definitely breed a whole generation of spoiled and self-entitled leaches.

    1. But think of “the CHILDREN!”

      Individuals have kids for their own benefit, not the kids, nor society at large. Public schooling should end for many reasons, and amongst the strongest of these is that having children shouldn’t be free. Being a parent is a huge responsibility, and economic disincentives should postpone or even self-disqualify some potential parents. However with school being free it is almost like we are encouraging those of little means to reproduce anyway.

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