Interdistrict open enrollment (OE) is something of an enigma in Texas. It’s up to districts whether to open their borders or to keep them closed to non-resident students. But unlike other states, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not track or report such enrollment data statewide. A new analysis released by the Reason Foundation helps to provide a first-ever snapshot of OE in the Lone Star State.
The data, aggregated from regional reports compiled by the TEA following the 2018–19 school year, give only the most basic information. Of the state’s nearly 5,432,000 K–12 students, approximately 146,000 of them, or about 3 percent, attended a traditional public school outside of their residentially assigned district. Based on schools’ “Overall Scaled Score” or “Overall Rating” in TEA’s accountability system, students disproportionately left lower-rated districts for higher-rated districts. OE students also tended to transfer out of districts with higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students, although the backgrounds of the departing OE student population remain unknown. A wide variation in the number of OE students accepted by districts was apparent, with some enrolling thousands from outside of their boundaries and others enrolling none at all. A data visualization tool developed with the assistance of the Texas Public Policy Foundation reveals the location of these hubs of activity and inactivity. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the observable patterns. It is not unusual for a district with a high influx of students to be surrounded by districts registering low outflows.
As the researchers lament, these data are broad snapshots of open enrollment patterns. There is no way to know which students are moving or how they are faring in their new schools. It is similarly unknown whether choices are limited or abound. Although a 2011 Brookings analysis of school choice policies across the country called interdistrict open enrollment a “widely available and easily accessible” form of school choice, author Russ Whitehurst told the Texas Tribune at the time that the lack of state level data in the Lone Star State served to lower the value of OE. “It’s not a marketplace if parents can’t really shop and compare and make a rational choice,” he said. This was perhaps an exaggerated response, but the criticism of data availability was valid then and is only slightly less valid now.
The Reason Foundation report raises a number of concerns on behalf of families, including opaque and varying transfer processes from district to district, which arise from the “black box” of Texas’s district-centric OE set up. While this analysis is a much-needed first step, more and better data must be collected and readily available if families are to benefit from OE in Texas to the fullest possible extent.
SOURCE: Jordan Campbell and Aaron Garth Smith, “Analysis of Texas School District Open Enrollment Data,” Reason Foundation (March 2021).