California Interdistrict Choice Program Revived

Published October 12, 2009

A popular public school choice program in California will continue until at least 2016, after lawmakers voted to reinstate and expand the state’s 17-year-old “district of choice” policy, which had expired in July.

California’s district of choice (DOC) program lets school districts with available space accept students from outside their geographic boundaries. If transfer applications exceed available seats, a district uses a random drawing to decide admissions.

The law allows 5,000 students to enroll in schools outside of their districts of residence through the DOC program. SB 680, sponsored by state Sens. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles) and Bob Huff (R-Glendora) and passed on September 8, extends DOC through 2016, eliminates a cap on the number of districts that may participate in the program, and requires the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst to perform a top-to-bottom evaluation of the policy and report back to lawmakers by 2014.

Tortuous Path

The DOC program is different from California’s primary interdistrict transfer law. Under DOC, parents do not have to obtain permission from their resident school district to enroll in a public school in a neighboring district. The bill did not have an easy path to approval. A state Assembly committee voted it down in June. The earlier draft of the bill sparked controversy by seeking to make the district of choice program permanent. The Senate passed SB680 unanimously in April and again in September. But the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted down the bill along party lines on June 30, with Democrats opposed and Republicans voting in support. The committee reconsidered and passed an amended version of the bill with the 2016 sunset date on July 16.

If the legislature had not passed SB 680, Romero, who has announced plans to run for state superintendent of public instruction next year, predicted thousands of minority and low-income students would be forced to return to their district of residence. Romero’s office said without the DOC program, black and Latino students could be sent to low-performing schools where their academic needs would not be well served.

Parental Rights

Huff, who serves as vice-chairman of the state Senate Education Committee, said the opposition to choice shocked him.

“I am not sure why some still believe this is bad policy, other than there was a lot of misinformation being spread around, with no objective data to counter it,” Huff said. “The program has been running for 17 years, and participating parents are very pleased.”

After the committee vote in June, Romero blasted her colleagues.

“As a Democrat, I ask: Why do we give the issue of choice and parental rights to the Republicans?”

Not all school districts participate in or support DOC, however. Opponents of the transfer program say it deprives struggling school districts of enrollment—and the state funding that comes with it. An Assembly analysis of SB 680 noted 52 percent of California’s school districts are currently experiencing declining enrollment.

But Bob Raines, superintendent of the Alexander Valley Union School District in Sonoma County, supports the program and says the law has empowered parents over the years to make better decisions about their children’s education.

“When a family felt their child could receive a better education somewhere else within the public school system, they could go get it,” Raines said.

‘Healthy Competition’

Romero, who has steadfastly opposed private school vouchers, agrees with Raines that the state should give parents more educational options.

“I believe in healthy competition,” Romero said when she introduced SB 680 in February. “I think [the bill] gives us an opportunity to showcase what we are doing to race to the top and to say, ‘We are not afraid of our parents.’ “

Pointing to state standardized test results showing an achievement gap in language and math among black and Latino students, Romero said public school choice is “a civil rights issue.”

“This says, ‘I am not afraid; we are not afraid,’ ” Romero said. “We can rise to the challenge.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from southern California.