California’s Districts of Choice program allows school boards to decide if their districts will accept students from outside their boundaries, giving families more options beyond the confines of their zip code. The program has been in place for 17 years but is set to expire at the end of June, sparking debate over a replacement.
Bipartisan legislation has been co-authored by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles), Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) now along with Asm. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Asm. Curt Hagman (Chino Hills) to continue the Districts of Choice program, which passed unanimously on the Senate floor in April.
After two hours of debate in the Assembly Education Committee, six of the 11 members voted in favor of the bill. The remaining five will wait to vote after amendments have been added. All members seem to agree on the good intention of the bill.
“The whole notion of choice is a good one,” said committee chair Asm. Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica).
“It is very important to parents,” said Sen. Romero, in her opening remarks describing Districts of Choice as an innovative program whose initial supporters wanted to keep students in public schools. With financial concerns mounting and student enrollment declining in some parts of the state, public schools should focus on what works to keep students.
“Choice creates excellence” stated the Los Angeles Times in a recent editorial on the program, a success in districts such as Walnut Valley Unified in Los Angeles County.
This District of Choice receives nearly $9,000 per pupil, compared to unified district average of more than $11,700. Yet, a full 75 percent of its students test proficient in reading and 77 percent in math according to the California Department of Education. Walnut Valley has gained nearly 900 students by participating in the District of Choice program.
Rowland Unified School District’s superintendent Maria Ott spoke out in concern of the bill due to the recent loss of students in her district because of the Districts of Choice program. When pressed by Asm. Brian Nestande (R-Riverside), Ott admitted that her district has responded to competition and is taking steps to keep and attract students such as creating smaller middle and high schools. “So the program has created healthy competition,” noted Asm. Nestande.
To allay similar concerns from districts about their ability to compete there is a three percent student transfer cap per year and a 10 percent limit overall. For large districts of more than 50,000 students, the annual cap is one percent. All districts therefore have a bit of fiscal wiggle room when students exit since enrollment figures have a one year lag time.
The new bill will require the Legislative Analyst’s Office to evaluate and report on the program five years after reauthorization—allowing the legislature two years to weigh the results before the program’s sunset. A 2008 California Department of Education study found no significant negative consequences.
A new report was expected on April 1, 2009, but has yet to be released. Improving the reporting requirements will bring accountability and information on the success or failure of the program, allowing enough time for the legislature to act accordingly. First they must act on legislation to replace the Districts of Choice measure set to expire on June 30.
“Parents should have some say in what’s best for their student, not I,” said Asm. Buchanan (D-San Mateo), “Sometimes a transfer to another school is what is best,” noting the reality that students should not be seen as mere commodities for school funding. Parents and students agree and will be watching the results with keen interest.
Evelyn B. Stacey, is an research associate for education policy studies at Pacific Research Institute, in Sacramento.