The new school year is here and it’s a reminder to kids and parents that the quality of their schools is often determined by their ZIP codes. Children are assigned to public schools based on where they live, and it’s no secret that the quality of schools varies tremendously by neighborhood.
While some families have the financial means to move in order to seek out better schools, many others don’t, and the system forces them to settle for their zoned school, whether it suits their needs or not. Fortunately, school choice mechanisms, including charter schools, are increasingly providing parents with options. But California still has a ways to go, as evidenced by the state’s interdistrict transfer policies, which are supposed to help students enroll in schools across district boundaries.
Lawmakers recently extended the state’s “District of Choice” program, which is used by an estimated 10,000 students statewide. Under this policy, participating school districts are prohibited from imposing admissions requirements on transfer students, and families aren’t required to get permission from their home districts before transferring schools.
A study by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office gave the program a passing grade, finding that nearly all students in the program transfer to districts with higher test scores, and that a majority of parents reported improvements in the kids’ self-confidence, satisfaction with learning and motivation.
The competitive effects of the program even helped home districts, which responded to declining enrollment numbers by creating new offerings, such as college preparatory and science programs. For example, Bryant Elementary in Riverside Unified School District adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum to attract and retain more students.
But the LAO study also uncovered some problems, including the fact that only 5 percent of the state’s school districts participate in the program. As a result, most parents seeking transfer options across district lines are forced to navigate the state’s default transfer mechanism, which not only requires reluctant home districts to allow students to leave, but also permits the incoming districts to adopt admissions requirements that might include academic, attendance and behavioral standards that can be easily manipulated to cherry-pick only the best transfer students.
This is worrisome because research shows districts that are substantially more affluent than their neighbors are more likely to reject transfer applicants. “While districts claim that they are making rejections for capacity reasons, concern over negative peer effects or negative capitalization effects might influence their marginal decision making,” a research study found. In other words, some superintendents would rather bow to political pressure than allow low-income kids to fill empty seats in affluent schools.
The reauthorized District of Choice program included measures that should improve transparency, like collecting enrollment data on program participants, but it didn’t go far enough in giving families more say over children’s education.
California should look to emulate Florida’s newly enacted open enrollment plan, which allows parents to enroll their kids in any school in the state that has not reached capacity. Under this system, districts still give preferential enrollment to students who reside within their boundaries, but they are prohibited from closing their doors to outside students for arbitrary reasons. They must also maintain and publish capacity plans on their websites that specify exactly how many seats are available so that administrators can’t game the system by favoring some students over others or disallowing transfer students entirely.
California’s District of Choice program has produced positive results and provided families with better educational opportunities. Improving the policy, as Florida has done, would further ensure that transfer opportunities aren’t limited to a select few students.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.