Last month, dozens of Austin parents camped out on the cold concrete of the Austin Independent School District headquarters parking lot with one goal in mind: securing a better learning environment for their children.
For reasons ranging from better academics to safer learning conditions and less crowded classrooms, these parents sought transfers from their children’s assigned public schools to others within the district.
This campout has become an annual tradition for some Austin families. One Saturday each February, the district opens its transfer application period for the next school year. Some parents get in line up to 24 hours early to ensure their child’s first-choice school. This school year, 10 percent of Austin ISD students will transfer out of their assigned campuses.
Late that Saturday morning, a father hurriedly parked, jumped out of his car, and ran into the building with his son following close behind. Perhaps the babysitter was running late, or the oil change took longer than expected; whatever the reason, this man was clearly panicked at the possibility of his son not receiving the transfer he so desperately needed.
Another father left the administration building with his two sons, for whom he had just requested transfers. As he put it, “gerrymandering” by the school district had changed the school to which his home was zoned. “In the past, we have moved to get to a school that we wanted to go to,” he stated. But finances and other situations kept that from being an option this time around, he said.
The ability to transfer is especially important to his family, since one of the two boys is enrolled in special education classes due to a learning disability. This father’s transfer requests have always been successful, but he knows the mother of another special education student who has not been so fortunate.
While Austin ISD provides concerned parents with some degree of choice, parents should not have to camp out overnight in the hope that their child is one of the lucky few to be accepted for a transfer. At the very least, students should be allowed to attend the school of their choice within their local district.
Beyond that, the state must commit itself to offering meaningful choice between districts for students who are eligible for the Public Education Grant (PEG) program.
This program allows students in low-performing schools to transfer to higher-performing schools within or outside of their home district. Last year, more than 600,000 students were eligible for the PEG program, but unfortunately, a mere 188 exercised this choice.
It is not enough merely to create the options that allow children to transfer away from low-performing schools. Parents need to be aware of these options, and the system needs to be structured so that the schools have appropriate incentives to accept these transferring students.
But ultimately, unsatisfied parents need the opportunity to take their tax dollars to the public or private school of their choice. While public school transfers may offer a quick remedy for students in undesirable situations, they will never result in the systemic improvements associated with widespread school choice programs.
At Austin ISD that Saturday morning, a third father emerged from the administration building after requesting a transfer for his daughter, who “wants to go to a better school and wants to get a better education.” When asked if he would take advantage of a school choice program that would allow him to choose a private school instead, he said, “Yes! St. Ignatius [Martyr School] is very good, but is too expensive for my family.”
Perhaps someday, Texas parents will be blessed with a statewide school choice program that allows them to choose the public or private school that is best for their children. But until then, lawmakers should focus on ways to make school choice within the public system a viable option for more parents.
Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.