District of Choice, a state program that allows a student to transfer to another district if the family believes they would have better opportunities, is set to expire in 2028, but the Sacramento legislation would extend the program indefinitely.
“Making the program permanent will provide much-needed certainty to thousands of families across California,” said Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat who sponsored the bill.
“These families have been able to take advantage of educational opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them,” Newman said, “and they are entitled to the assurance that their students will be able to graduate alongside their friends and classmates, regardless of l home address or policy here in Sacramento.
Created in 1993, the District of Choice program allows students across California to transfer from one public school district to another; the idea is to provide students and families with educational program options that would otherwise not be available in their home district.
Under the terms of the program, participating districts must determine the number of transfer students they can accept, and they cannot refuse students because of their athletic or academic abilities, English proficiency or other demographic characteristics. Students do not need to have a specific reason to transfer or have permission from their home district.
“This program is part of a broader effort to encourage innovation and improvements within districts and throughout the California public school system,” Newman said.
In 2021, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which provides policy and fiscal information to the Legislature, determined that the program merited “reauthorization, potentially on a permanent basis.” The evaluation also found that students transferring through the District of Choice program had access to an average of five to seven courses not offered in their home district.
Statewide, about 9,600 students are enrolled in the District of Choice program, spread across 45 districts, Newman said. For comparison, there were just over 5.85 million students in public schools in 939 districts in the 2022-23 school year.
“For all the attention the program has received, it’s not big,” Newman said, “but I think it’s important because it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to best encourage districts to improve, but also to reward families. This gives them the autonomy to find the program that best suits their needs.
What is the impact on municipalities?
Expanding the program would not negatively impact districts as much as critics predict, said Bill Jeynes, an education professor at Cal State Long Beach.
Referring to fears that large numbers of students would end up leaving a lower-performing district, Jeynes said, “I don’t think we’re going to have this mass exodus of kids leaving school. Proximity to your home district school alone is a big factor in keeping many students there.
An expert on school choice, Jeynes predicted the program would continue to see about 10,000 students participate, with enrollment figures fluctuating over time but not changing dramatically.
In Orange County, no districts participate in the program, although some districts allow students to transfer outside of their home district for a variety of reasons, including health, proximity to family and other issues social. Orange Unified School District, for example, allows students to transfer for health needs, for interest in an educational program that OUSD does not offer or to be in the same district as a sibling.
Various spokespersons for Orange County districts had the same message when asked why they don’t participate in the program: Either they already have a system in place that allows students to transfer within the district, or they are a locally funded district and can only accept students who live within the boundaries.
And even though OC districts don’t participate in District of Choice, students still can. According to Newman, about 70 Orange County students attend out-of-county districts through the program.
Districts can choose not to participate in District of Choice, Jeynes said, because it could “open the door for parents to send students who have serious aggressive tendencies to Orange County schools for the purpose of seeing them approve “.
“Put simply,” Jeynes said, “some of the best schools in the state are in Orange County, and the region could be the first to be hit.”
But Walnut Valley Unified School District Board President Helen Hall says the program is essential to the district’s operation because it “ensures that all students have access to a quality education.”
WVUSD in the San Gabriel Valley is the largest district program of choice with 2,600 students enrolled, or 19% of the district’s total enrollment. The district, with a total enrollment of just over 13,000 students, ranks highest in English and math as well as graduation rates, according to the latest data from the California School Dashboard, which uses indicators national and local levels to determine district performance. .
“We believe every child deserves the opportunity to thrive academically and personally, regardless of their background or where they live,” Hall said. “This program demonstrates our commitment to fostering an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students. »
Hall said students in the program mostly come from Southern California school districts, including neighboring communities in and around the San Gabriel Valley as well as Orange County.
What program changes does the bill propose?
Newman’s bill would increase state per-pupil funding for students participating in free or reduced-price lunch programs, youth care programs and English-language learning programs.
This funding increase targets transfer students in “basic aid” districts. These districts receive little state funding because their revenue from local property taxes exceeds what they would receive under the local control funding formula, calculating by various criteria – average daily attendance or number of students in need such as English learners, foster youth or college students. low-income families, for example – on how districts receive state funding. This supplements the funding that districts miss when they rely solely on property tax revenue.
Newman’s bill aims to ensure that students receive sufficient funding regardless of which district they transfer to. It does this by reallocating funds they would have initially received in a non-basic aid district to the basic aid district, even though the funding they would receive there would be less, said Brandon Wong, legislative aide by Newman.
Some basic aid districts in Southern California are Newport-Mesa Unified and Laguna Beach Unified in Orange County, Beverly Hills Unified in Los Angeles County, Desert Center Unified in Riverside County, and Baker Valley Unified in San Bernardino County.
The legislation preserves many of the protections already in place for home districts, allowing them to restrict transfers if they worsen the district’s financial insolvency or significantly harm its racial and ethnic diversity, Newman said.
Under the proposed bill, foster youth who are unhoused would receive priority admission into the program.
“We hope that by making the program permanent, kids can stay in the schools they’re already in and new districts can join them knowing they won’t run into all these problems for nothing,” Wong said .
Karen Frost, a spokeswoman for the conservative Moms of Liberty chapter in Los Angeles, says the program results in “healthy competition (that) will get all schools working on their performance standards.” And it gives children who learn differently than others an “opportunity” to excel in school, she said.
“Some children are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some are kinesthetic learners,” Frost said. “It is unrealistic to believe that the “neighborhood school model” will be able to meet the needs of all children. If a transfer to another district is the best option for the student, it should be offered.
Since its inception, the District of Choice program has been expanded several times through legislation and has allowed more than 10,000 students to enroll in the district of their choice, Newman said. Newman, who is running for reelection this year, led the last two reauthorizations of the program, in 2017 as part of an education budget bill and again in 2022.
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