In most places in California, students must attend a school in the district where they live, or a charter school anywhere if they find one they like. But 47 districts have opened their doors to students outside their borders, under a little–used program set to expire next year.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office, after concluding that the District of Choice program is working as intended, recommended in a report last month that the Legislature extend it for at least five years beyond its June 2017 sunset date. The analyst’s office said the program is providing students with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, while encouraging students’ former districts to compete to retain them by providing magnet programs and courses that parents want.
“We think the strengths of the program, including additional educational options for students and improved district programs, justify reauthorization,” according to the report.
Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, a longtime advocate of school choice, agrees and said he plans to introduce legislation to extend the program and remove some of its restrictions. In a recent radio program, Huff characterized the program as a “win-win situation by creating a little competition within the public school system.”
What’s perhaps surprising is that the program is so rarely used, even though any of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts could become a District of Choice. Only about 10,000 of the state’s 6.1 million children participate in the program.
Origin of the program
The Legislature established the District of Choice program, along with the law authorizing charter schools, in 1993, partly, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said, to head off what lawmakers perceived as a potential threat: Proposition 174, a 1993 ballot initiative that would have provided parents with vouchers for money to send their children to any school they wanted. Prop. 174 proved unpopular and was soundly defeated. Since then, the Legislature has reauthorized District of Choice five times.
The program has grown from about a dozen and a half districts initially to 47. Many are small, rural districts struggling to keep enrollments stable, but several are urban districts, including one of the state’s largest, 50,000-student Riverside Unified.
In the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angles County, Walnut Valley Unified alone accounts for nearly one-third of the statewide number of students in the District of Choice program. The 3,415 who enrolled through the program in 2014-15 made up one-quarter of Walnut Valley’s 14,429 students. Oak Park Unified, in Ventura County, had the next-highest participation; its 1,691 transferees made up 37 percent of the 4,453 students in the district. The district features the program prominently on its website, which includes a lengthy Q&A.
The top participating districts – Walnut Valley, Oak Park, Glendora (L.A .County), Riverside (Riverside County) and West Covina (L.A. County) unified districts – account for 80 percent of the students in the program statewide.
Becoming a District of Choice requires approval only by the school board. A district must annually specify the number of available seats, usually by grade. Parents must apply by Jan. 1 for the following year; districts must hold a lottery if applications exceed openings.
The Legislature has attached a number of conditions to the program. Districts of Choice must accept whoever applies and hold a lottery if there aren’t enough seats, can’t target athletes or students by race or income and can’t exclude students with disabilities.
Parents don’t need permission from their home districts to transfer, but home districts may cap the annual number of transferees at 3 percent of enrollment, or at 10 percent of average annual enrollment cumulatively over the authorized life of the District of Choice program, and they can prevent transfers if the loss of enrollment revenue would cause a district “severe financial stress,” the report said. Rowland Unified sued Walnut Valley Unified on this issue and won. A state Court of Appeal halted additional District of Choice transfers from Rowland.
Districts are required to compile annual data on the numbers and demographics of students who attend. The report called for more monitoring of the program, with the creation of a complaint process by county offices of education, and it noted that the state Department of Education had failed to collect data and study the program, as the Legislature had required.
Why parents want to transfer their kids
Based on its surveys and interviews, the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that parents chose a District of Choice for a variety of reasons, and districts chose whether to participate for a mix of reasons, too.
Some parents did so for convenience, so their kids could attend a school in an adjoining district closer to home. A few parents transferred their kids because of bullying. Some identified a specific program, such as Advanced Placement or project-based learning, not offered in their districts. And for others, it was to switch to what they considered a better district, based on test scores or perceptions.
Mortgage banker Sam Castorena and about 10 families in his neighborhood in Diamond Bar carpool to send their kids to Walnut Valley schools instead of schools in Pomona Unified. Diamond Bar has no school district of its own; it’s divided between Walnut Valley and Pomona by a decades-old utility line, Castorena said. Pomona is larger, with 24,000 students, more than 80 percent of whom are low-income and 30 percent of whom are English language learners.
Walnut Valley, with 20 percent low-income families and about 10 percent English learners, had among the state’s highest Academic Performance Index scores – a system for rating schools based on test scores – before the index was suspended three years ago, with an average of more than 900. Its music programs have received national recognition, and the district and its high schools regularly make lists of the nation’s best.
For Castorena, the choice was between sending his children, now in 1st and 3rd grades, to Walnut Valley or a private school. Test scores were a “huge factor” in his decision, he said, as was parent participation in Walnut Valley schools. He applied for the district’s elementary school tied to the International Baccalaureate, a rigorous academic program, and his kids got in. “If you have an opportunity to give your kids the best, why not try?” he said.
The legislative analyst’s report found that Hispanic, African-American and poor students were underrepresented in the program: 27 percent of participants qualified for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, compared with 58 percent of students statewide. As with Pomona and Walnut Valley, nearly all District of Choice students transfer to districts with smaller shares of low-income students than their home districts.
The report found that some District of Choice administrators saw the program as a way to stabilize enrollment or, for those with declining enrollment, ward off a financial crisis from a further loss of enrollment-based funding. Others saw advantages of economies of scale from adding students. Riverside Unified saw the opportunity for innovation, according to an article in Education Next. In the years after it opened its borders in 2011-12, attracting nearly 900 students, Riverside Unified opened a science and technology middle school, a dual-language immersion elementary school and an all-digital high school.
Walnut Valley Superintendent Robert Taylor said that being a District of Choice reflects the district’s philosophy that “all kids should have choice. Every district has strengths and weaknesses.”
When they passed the program, legislators feared that home districts would be left with harder-to-educate students and their test scores would drop. But that hasn’t happened overall, the legislative analyst found, and some home districts have responded to a loss of students by asking departing parents why they left.
“It can be challenging for home districts, but also leads them to restructure and drop unpopular programs and put in place programs communities want,” Ken Kapphahn, the analyst who wrote the report, said in an interview.
Sean Goldman, executive director of Student Support Services for Simi Valley Unified, acknowledged that the district, which has lost students to Oak Park, has responded with improvements. For instance, it opened an International Baccalaureate program and a school for the arts. But, he added in the same radio interview as Huff, that most of the departing students were from affluent families, “and that is having a negative effect on our culture and economic diversity.”
Districts with full enrollment and no room to expand aren’t likely to become a District of Choice. Others handle requests for enrollment through interdistrict permits. Kapphahn also found in calling around that administrators in many districts didn’t know about the program. There is little information about the program on the state Department of Education website.
But then there’s a largely unspoken reason why few districts have become Districts of Choice. Enrolling students from neighboring districts can create ill will among superintendents whose districts lose enrollment and funding. “Sometimes the program can raise tensions between districts, especially if there is a notable impact in one district,” Kapphahn said.
Becoming a District of Choice violates an unwritten rule, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst told Education Next: “It’s a professional norm that you don’t try to poach students from other districts.”
But that’s all the more reason that the Legislature should reauthorize the program and make it permanent, Bill Lucia, president of the pro-school choice nonprofit EdVoice, said in a statement. Where a student happens to live shouldn’t limit a parent’s options, he said, adding, “Parents, not ZIP codes, are best suited to pick the best public school for their children’s needs.”