With the election behind us and the 2023 legislative session just days away, Gov. Bill Lee and state legislators should be looking at ways to build upon last session’s historic education funding reform, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA). The most immediate thing state leaders could do to improve education equity for Tennessee students would be to eliminate public schools’ ability to charge transfer students tuition.
Although Tennessee offers some options for students to transfer public schools through the state’s open-enrollment program, public schools are allowed to charge tuition to students living outside a district’s boundaries. And schools across the state do so to the tune of thousands of dollars.
In the 2020-21 school year, for example, Collierville Schools, a district outside Memphis, charged out-of-district families living in Shelby County $400 per student to transfer to its schools, and families who lived outside the county were charged $4,000 per transfer student. To the east, Cleveland City Schools and Greeneville City Schools charged out-of-county families nearly $2,000 to transfer last year.
Williamson County Schools, which includes Franklin, Brentwood and other high-income neighborhoods south of Nashville, charged out-of-county families $3,850 to enroll a transfer student for the 2020-2021 school year.
Even though a high-quality Williamson County school is accessible from many Nashville (Davidson County) neighborhoods, this steep price tag prevents families from accessing schools in the award-winning district.
Some of Williamson County’s own teachers are growing frustrated with public school tuition costs. In the spring of 2022, Williamson County Schools educators living in Davidson County implored the school board to reduce the tuition they pay to send their own children to the schools where they work. Ultimately, the school board decided to reduce the enrollment charges for full-time employees to $2,000 per student with a plan to fully phase out tuition for employees’ children.
But it shouldn’t just be the children of educators or relatively well-off Nashville families who have access to Williamson County Schools. Students transfer schools for a variety of reasons, including escaping bullying, accessing specialized programs and taking advantage of more accessible transportation routes for their parents.
What’s more, today’s residential school assignments and school catchment zones often reflect the racially-driven redlining of decades past. Asking middle- and low-income families to pay thousands of dollars to overcome this segregation is wrong.
School districts may say they need these tuition funds to cover the costs of educating transfer students, but the state’s new funding reform, TISA, will remedy this issue by attaching a fixed dollar amount to each student served by a district, whether they live within its boundaries or not.
While school districts will receive state funds for a transfer student thanks to TISA, some schools may still argue they need to charge tuition because they can’t levy additional educational funds for the student through local property taxes. But other states, like Wisconsin, have found a way to address this funding gap without placing the burden on families. Wisconsin’s student transfer policy even provides extra funding for special-needs students and reimburses low-income families for some transportation costs.
Twenty-four states already have laws on the books that prevent public schools from charging families tuition or fees to transfer public schools. During the 2023 session, Tennessee policymakers should focus on making the state’s public schools free and open to all students.
A version of this column previously appeared in the Tennesseean.