Parents miss out on option to transfer out of low-ranking schools

July 29, 2015

Parents won’t be able to transfer their children out of California’s lowest-ranked schools under a little-known law because the state’s scoring index – the basis for the rankings – has been suspended.

The California Department of Education this year will not identify 1,000 low-ranking schools, where parents can request to transfer their children from, because no test scores are available to determine which schools meet the criteria, said Jenny Singh, education research and evaluation administrator for the department.

As a result, parents won’t have the option to transfer under the Open Enrollment Act next year.

The transfer program is falling victim to the lack of Academic Performance Index, or API, scores, which are suspended while state officials develop a new accountability system.

State officials had used API scores to determine which schools qualify for the list through last year. The API was based on the California Standards Tests, which students last took in 2013.

“We don’t really have a choice,” Singh said. “You can’t produce something when you don’t have the data.”

The California Standards Tests were replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments that students took for the first time in the spring. The first scores are due out next month.

State officials are looking to change the school accountability system, incorporating results of the Smarter Balanced Assessments. The state superintendent next year is expected to make a recommendation for the replacement of the API.

Gloria Romero, the former state senator who was the author of the Open Enrollment Act, sometimes known as the Romero Act, said last week that she was unaware that the state was skipping the rankings this year. Since leaving office in 2010, Romero started the California Center for Parent Empowerment, which helps parents use the transfer law.

Romero said there could be legal challenges if the list is not produced. She called it a “scary proposition.”

“Does the law go away because there’s a suspension? Because the state failed to do something?” Romero said.

The Open Enrollment Act was part of a series of education reforms that took effect in 2010, part of the state’s effort at the time to qualify for federal Race to the Top funds – a grant program meant to reform teaching and learning throughout the states.

Under the open enrollment law, the state identifies the 1,000 lowest-achieving schools by looking at the bottom 10 percent of API scores. School districts can have no more than 10 percent of their schools identified for the transfers. See the state’s methodology here. Parents can request transfers to any school with higher test scores, even those outside their districts. Schools are supposed to accept students as long as there is room.

It’s unknown how many parents used the law because the state did not track requests.

Officials at three of the state’s largest school districts – Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno unified – said few parents used the option. However, parents often move their children out of those same schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which allows transfers out of certain schools that fail to make test score goals. The No Child Left Behind law is better known and has been in place for more than a decade.

Districts also often let parents transfer out of their neighborhood schools other ways, such as magnet schools, specialized programs and inter-district transfer requests.

San Diego Unified officials were unaware of any parents who specifically moved their children under the Open Enrollment Act, although students switched schools under other choice programs, said Ursula Kroemer, a San Diego district spokeswoman.

In Fresno Unified, no parents have requested Open Enrollment Act transfers in the past three years, although two had in prior years, said Jedidiah Chernabaeff, a Fresno district spokesman. No transfers were granted under this specific law, although they used other choice options.

The state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, has not experienced a “significant impact” from the act. Under the law, 41 parents applied for transfers last year for the 2015-16 school year, said Nancy Gutierrez, the district’s program coordinator of pupil services.

But far more students have switched schools through other programs: About 6,000 parents apply for incoming or outgoing permits annually, Gutierrez said.

“The decision not to release a list this year seems fair because it would not be useful to categorize or rate schools based on several years old data,” Gutierrez said in an email.

Romero said she believes few parents have requested transfers because they were unaware of the law, despite requirements that districts notify parents. Late last year, Romero held a series of meetings in Los Angeles and Anaheim to inform parents about the choice, but she said she encountered resistance in both places. District officials made it difficult for parents to apply, Romero said.

Also, parents had little time to submit requests. The school list came out in November and the state deadline is Jan. 1 – a time when schools are on winter break.

“If you don’t know the law exists, you can’t use it,” Romero said.

Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, which backed the law, said he also was unaware that the state was not producing rankings. Last week, he said he would be looking into the matter.

Shortly after the law passed, some district officials complained about the process. Because only a limited number of schools can be identified from each district, some schools in districts with higher API scores landed on the low-achieving list. Schools are allowed to petition the state board to be removed from the list.

Although parents are unable to use old API scores to request transfers, they are still able to use the results under another part of the 2010 reforms – the Parent Empowerment Act, or parent trigger law. According to a recent court ruling and other opinions, parents can continue to use the two-year-old scores to determine if a school is failing under the Parent Empowerment Act. Parents can use the act to force changes at their schools, including turning them into charters.


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