Opinion: Make it easier for students to transfer between public schools

A guest columnist advocates for open enrollment, which allows K-12 students to transfer from one public school to another. While such policies exist in Georgia, they are often unclear to families. (John Spink / AJC file photo)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

A guest columnist advocates for open enrollment, which allows K-12 students to transfer from one public school to another. While such policies exist in Georgia, they are often unclear to families. (John Spink / AJC file photo)

The debate over educational freedom is often pitted as a matter of public education vs. “other.” The truth is, there’s a lot of potential for students to have options within the public system.

Public charter schools, various types of virtual education, magnet schools, career-oriented learning, open enrollment — all are ways for public educators to provide choice. Yet, too often these options are inadequate.

A new report from my organization about open enrollment in Georgia offers a good illustration. On the surface, Georgia might appear in good shape: Families can request a transfer from one public school in their district to another, and in many cases, they can pay a modest amount of tuition to enroll in another district. But looking deeper, we see many limitations on this important option.

Let’s start with the reason we at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation had to compile a report on open enrollment in the first place: a lack of consistent clarity about how well this policy is working.

Kyle Wingfield

Credit: Copyright 2023 BILL ADLER - ALL

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Credit: Copyright 2023 BILL ADLER - ALL

Like most states that allow public school transfers, Georgia does not track data about students transferring between public schools. While many of the state’s 180 districts track their own data, they do not routinely volunteer this information on their websites or other platforms. Parents, educators and taxpayers have little way of knowing whether most transfer requests in their own districts are approved or denied — much less comparing those results to other districts.

When we asked for this information, districts demonstrated uneven responsiveness. We sought data from 69 of the state’s largest districts. Only 21 offered any kind of response. Among these 21, just 14 were able to provide any of the data we requested. Some of the 14 supplied the data promptly. Others required us to file an official information request; sometimes, we had to pay for them to complete it.

Paying for such information requests is hardly uncommon, but this is the kind of information that should be freely available to parents, educators and taxpayers. Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin collect and report this information statewide, and they are good examples for reform-minded policymakers in Georgia.

While we received few responses, the responsive districts represent a large share of Georgia’s public school enrollment: They serve about 547,000 students, or almost 1 in 3 across the state. So, how do they perform at allowing transfers within their boundaries?

The initial numbers appear to be impressive: 20,448 out of 25,826 applications were approved, for a rate of 79%. However, that high success rate might be misleading. As our report explains:

“Districts differ from one another both in how they track transfers and in how their transfers are processed. For example, some districts reported zero applications denied because their schools at enrollment capacity do not even make applications available — meaning students who wished to go to these schools were effectively denied from the get-go.”

Paulding County is one district that accepts transfer applications only for schools with available capacity. This may be more efficient for the district and less frustrating for parents, who don’t want to spend the time filing a dead-end application. But it means the 79% success rate statewide is inflated.

What’s more, denials due to capacity were not recorded consistently from across districts, if at all. An implicit problem is how “enrollment capacity” is determined. What is the standard? It would be a shame if capacity were simply a handy excuse for limiting the number of students from other parts of a district who were allowed to transfer into a popular school in a more exclusive area.

A consistent state standard for establishing each school’s capacity, one that is consistently reported and, when necessary, enforced, would benefit families and the broader public.

Answering those questions matters, because capacity was a common reason districts gave for denying transfer applications — when they gave a reason at all. For example: Bibb County cited a lack of space for all 418 of its denials, out of 641 applications. The same was true for Cobb County, which denied 139 of 1,605 applications, citing space constraints each time.

Then there are cross-district transfers. Recently passed legislation, Senate Bill 233, includes a provision requiring only the approval of the “receiving district” for such transfers. That bill also limits tuition to the per-pupil local revenue collected by the receiving district.

Tuition is an interesting aspect. Many districts that allow out-of-district students charge very little tuition: as low as $200 annually, capped at $450 per family, in Trion City Schools. Others charge more: $2,250 per child, capped at $5,350 per family, in Bremen City Schools. For the 2023-24 school year, Dalton Public Schools offered tuition of $5,000 for out-of-state students — who, unlike interdistrict transfers from within Georgia, don’t generate state QBE dollars.

In these cases and all others we’ve found, districts generate more local dollars per pupil than they charge tuition students. That undercuts arguments (including arguments against private choice programs) that public schools can’t operate on less funding. But it is worth watching districts in future years to ensure that they don’t raise tuition to match the cap imposed by SB 233.

Georgians would be better served by more transparency, consistency and opportunity regarding open enrollment policies. Students deserve options to find their best educational fit, including within the public school system.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based think tank, which seeks to improve the lives of Georgians through public policies that enhance economic opportunity and freedom.