District of choice parents rally in Diamond Bar to support Walnut Valley Unified School District on Aug. 27. WVUSD is the largest district of choice with over 3,000 students. (Nick Burt/Talon)
Oak Park High School

47 school districts in state of uncertainty

Death of District of Choice bill could diminish parent choice

Segregation into a chaotic special education classroom environment was not what they had been looking for.

“[The school from our district of residence] never had a goal of integrating him into a normal first grade class … instead, he was corralled into a separate classroom,” said a District-of-Choice parent who asked to remain anonymous.

His son, Logan, whose name has been changed at the request of his parents, was placed into a special education class after he had been diagnosed with a muscular condition.

Logan began treatment at 3 years old and special education preschool at 4 years old.

“The philosophy of the school was to have a special class where students spent all of their time … separated from their peers,” Logan’s parent said.

By the end of that first school year, Logan’s family went looking for alternatives. That’s when they found Oak Park Unified School District.

“It took one school tour for us to fall in love with Oak Park,” Logan’s parent said. “And by the end of the year, he was a normal member of a first grade class.”

Logan is now at Medea Creek Middle School, but his family doesn’t know whether he will be able to culminate with his friends.

In fact, approximately 10,000 students like Logan across California do not know which school they will be attending next year.

The uncertainty came after Senate Bill 1432, a bill introduced to continue the District of Choice program past its July 1, 2017 expiration date, died in the California state legislature Aug. 11, 2016.

The DOC program allows students from any public school district and grade level to apply to a California District of Choice without a permit from the student’s district of residence.

Unless a new bill passes before July 1, 2017, the approximately 10,000 DOC students across the state of California will go back to their districts of residence for the 2017-18 school year.

Although thousands of parents, students, and staff members will remain temporarily uncertain of their futures, legislators plan on waiting through the current session, which ends Aug. 31, before introducing a new bill in December 2016, Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, the lead proponent of the program in the state’s legislature, said.

Parents and students watch as legislators and administrators advocate for the DOC program. Without the program, over 10,000 students would be forced return to their district of residence after July 2017. (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon)
Parents and students watch as legislators and administrators advocate for the DOC program. Without the program, over 10,000 students would be forced return to their district of residence after July 2017 (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon).

OPUSD, which is roughly 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, is the second largest District of Choice, with approximately 37 percent of its students from outside the district, OPUSD employee Cliff Moore wrote in an email. Of the 4,641 students attending Oak Park schools, approximately 1,700 are on the DOC program.

“This issue impacts every student and every staff member in Oak Park Unified School District,” OPUSD Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight wrote in a district-wide email.

With a significant loss of the student population, Oak Park Unified expects many of the nationally recognized programs to be severely affected.

Knight estimates that these students’ attendance amounts to $16.6 million in general funding per year. Without these students, 70 K-12 teachers, along with additional counselors and other staff, would have to be laid off.

“The District of Choice program has given us the opportunity to build something here, and if we had not had these kids, we couldn’t have done this,” Oak Park High School Principal Kevin Buchanan said.

Many of the programs currently offered to students would be cut.

“We are in better shape than we have ever been with regards to our programs, finances and our student achievement,” Moore said. “Students that we have brought in from out of district have contributed immensely to our community.”

“There is a direct correlation between the quality of our schools and the District of Choice program. The better the school district is, the better Oak Park is,” Knight said.

The District of Choice program also contributes to the surrounding community, Knight said.

According to Gayle Caughey, a realtor for Troop Real Estate, Oak Park’s local real estate values are largely influenced by the “academic prestige” of the schools in the school district.

“People are often willing to pay more for a house in Oak Park due to the schools. Without the positive impact of the schools, [local] property values would decrease,” Caughey wrote in an email.

Other Districts of Choice may experience even more loss.

Unlike OPUSD, the majority of California’s 47 DOC districts are located in rural communities, where many families work in agriculture.

“Rural districts of choice would cease to exist; they only stay alive by reaching outside of their boundaries to those who are willing to drive to get their kids there,” Huff said.

But the future of these rural districts, and the future of OPUSD, won’t be determined until the start of the next session.

In the meantime, families like Logan’s will continue to wait.

“We cannot afford a private school,” Logan’s father said, “and to turn our son back to our neighborhood middle school would be hard.”

The history of District of Choice 

Enacted in California in 1993, the District of Choice program was established to generate more school choice for students and parents and to combat the charter school movement. Supporters argued that parents should be allowed to choose which school district best fits their child.

Originally designed as a five-year pilot program, the program has been reauthorized five times since its inception. Since then, 47 districts across the state have officially adopted the program, with an estimated 10,202 students in the program during the 2014-15 school year.

 The process for a district to become a District of Choice is relatively simple; the district’s Board of Education must adopt a resolution, but otherwise the district does not need permission from the state or county government.

Among the few requirements was the mandate that districts be indiscriminate in their admissions, which in many cases amounted to using a lottery system to select students.

Many districts, including Oak Park Unified School District, originally adopted the program to stay financially stable.

“We started to experience a steep decline in residence enrollment in Oak Park around 2004,” OPUSD Superintendent Tony Knight said. “And when districts go into declining enrollment in California, it’s a very serious situation [due to] a loss of funding.”

To combat this issue, Knight persuaded the OPUSD governing board to adopt the DOC program. The district later extended the program following the 2008 housing crisis.

“When the ‘Great Recession’ began in 2008, there was a large decline in state funding, but we stepped up the DOC program to make sure our schools were at full capacity,” Knight said.

Enrolling more students allowed OPUSD to avoid cuts to programs throughout the school district.

Despite its operating since 1993, no information had ever been comprehensively researched and compiled on the DOC program until 2015.

T

“In 2009, the legislature asked us to do a review of the program prior to the [original] June 2016 ‘sunset’ date,” Kenneth Kappahan, a legal analyst from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento said.

In early 2015, the LAO report was still not finalized, and the DOC program was set to expire the following year. The program was extended for one more year pending the information.

“This report we released in January [2016] answered many of the questions the legislation asked us,”  Kappahan said. “Including who uses the program, how does it affect school districts and should the state extend it or not.”

Huff used information from the report, titled “Evaluation of the School District of Choice Program,” to prepare a reauthorization bill of the DOC program — SB 1432 — for the August 2016 session deadline.

The new bill added several amendments to the original, which began to draw criticism as it moved from the Senate floor to the Assembly Committee on Education.

The bill included amendments addressing transportation for disadvantaged students, posting student transfer information online, and replacing the 10 percent cap on transfers to a rolling 8 percent cap.

Two children protest in support of the District of Choice program at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).
Two children protest in support of the District of Choice program at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).

The original 10 percent cap measured the number of cumulative DOC students transferring to a specific DOC from a specific district of residence, limiting the number of DOC transfers to only 10 percent of the average daily attendance from that district of residence. The cap is cumulative because it measures the total number of DOC transfers from the district of residence since the beginning of the specific district’s DOC program.

The 8 percent rolling cap, however, would only limit the number of DOC transfers to a specific DOC to 8 percent of the average daily attendance from the district of residence each year.

SB 1432 had already passed the state Senate with a 38-1 vote in May and the Assembly Committee on Education with a 7-0 vote in late June.

Both administrators and legislators expected the bill to pass this session.

But the Assembly Committee on Education had received both opposition and support for the bill in their committee hearing in June.

The death of the bill 

Sixteen state legislators converged to hear the future of hundreds of state bills Aug. 11 — marking the a semi-annual event.

Less than half of the bills, not including SB 1432, passed by the end of the afternoon.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, chairs the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which ensures that the state can pay for bills before the bills become law. She placed SB 1432 on the “suspense file,” where bills costing more than $150,000 are put aside for further consideration.

“The chair [of the Education Committee] had no problem with the bill,” Huff said. “We included a lot of different things I wouldn’t have [included], but we had to get it out of committee.”

Huff added amendments that required Districts of Choice to report additional data to the state. The change pushed the total annual state cost to over $150,000, which the state would use to accommodate a new staff position in the California Department of Education.

OPUSD employee Cliff Moore, who has been advocating the bill in Sacramento, said he thought backdoor conversations occurred to force the bill into the Appropriations Committee.

State assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang speaks at the pro-DOC rally Aug. 27. (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon).
State assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang speaks at the pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon).

“We believe that the $150,000 financial impact of the bill was an amount that could have easily been underneath the threshold,” Moore said.

The DOC bill never left the suspense file, and was never brought up for a vote.

As chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Education, Gonzalez can stop any bill from passing her committee — and with SB 1432, she did.

By Aug. 11, the bill was “dead.” By Aug. 12, Districts of Choice had begun emailing the news to their students.

“[Gonzalez] killed it without any explanation — and it certainly wasn’t a fiscal issue, as we have been learning,” Huff said.

A bill can be held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee without any explanation or reasoning, according to assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, who represents Ventura County.
“We never really know why bills are stuck in Appropriations,” Irwin said.

In the past, the speaker of the assembly has had the ability to overrule any chair’s decision to suspend a bill. This ability changed with the election of Anthony Rendon to the speaker’s position in March, Huff said.

“The reality is that the speaker is about empowering the different chairs of the committees,”  Irwin said. “There isn’t a way to go around the Assembly Appropriations chair or speaker.”

With executive power granted to the Gonzalez as the chair, the current bill cannot move forward, Huff said.

In a joint statement by Gonzalez and assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, on Facebook Aug. 29, the legislators promised to work together on a solution before July 2017.

“We believe that education should not be a partisan issue and will work together to make sure our schools are working for all kids,” Chang wrote.

A grandfather clause 

A new bill, titled AB 1771, was introduced a week after SB 1432 was killed. However, this new bill has not yet passed.

“[AB 1771] would allow those DOC students to be grandfathered, meaning they would not have to leave their current programs,” assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said.

Whereas bills may normally take months to move through the legislative process, the sponsors of AB 1771 tried to take measures that would speed it through before the session ends Aug. 31.

Co-authored by Gonzalez and O’Donnell, the bill attracted criticism from proponents of the original program.

“The grandfathering clause is a short-term solution,” Irwin said. “But advocates have been asking if there is a better chance that we find a long-term solution.”

EdVoice, a non-profit organization devoted to improving student achievement and eliminating educational inequality, has argued in strong opposition to the new bill.

“AB 1771 is designed to end the [DOC] program altogether, with the current cohort of students being the last to enroll under the program,” Bill Lucia, the president of EdVoice, wrote in an opposition letter.

The new bill would allow DOC students to complete the highest grade level their current school offers. It would not allow new enrollment — even from students changing from elementary to middle or high school schools within the DOC district. For example, under this new bill, a DOC student attending Medea Creek could culminate from the middle school, but not attend Oak Park High School.

If the DOC program were not separately reauthorized, this would force DOC districts to downsize over the span of a few years.

OPUSD would have to begin cutting programs and teachers before the 2017-18 school year begins.

Still, O’Donnell sees the measure as a necessary compromise.

“I’m worried about families, I’m worried about student success and I’m trying to put forward a bill that works for the students now,” O’Donnell said.

Waiting until the legislature returns in December could give enough time for both sides of the issue to fix any disagreements before creating a new bill.

While there are other ways for students to change school districts, the DOC program is the only one allowing students to change districts without permission from their district of residence.

Simi Valley Unified School District, for example, requires parents to meet with administrators to discuss the reasons for leaving a school district. The other way to switch districts is through the inter-district transfer program. This method requires an agreement between both home and districts of choice before a transfer takes place.

“This last year we have taken a harder line on inter-district transfers,” SVUSD Executive Director Sean Goldman said.

If a district of residence does not allow a student to transfer, students can appeal to the local county of education or otherwise apply for an intra-district permit to transfer within the local district, according to Marian Chiara, a staff member of the Division of Student Support Services at the Los Angles County of Education.

“Typically districts of residence say ‘no’ to inter-district transfers, but at the county level, administrators usually say ‘yes.’ It’s a cumbersome process of uncertainty,” Huff said.

District to District: examining equity in the District of Choice program

The District of Choice bill died Aug. 11 due to its alleged worsening of socioeconomic and racial inequalities.

“[The DOC program] exacerbates the unequal system of haves-and-have-nots in our public schools and that the most disadvantaged schools and the students they serve get left behind,” Gonzalez wrote in a rare statement on this topic to ABC 7.

She is not alone. Others also discount the program as not being inclusive of minority students.

“[The DOC program] is going to harm students of color and students that are most in need … this is in violation to our constitutional promise under the 14th amendment,”  Chauncee Smith, a legislative advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said at a June assembly hearing.

What the numbers say about racial inequity 

The lack of oversight for the DOC program makes Gonzalez’ and others’ claims difficult to confirm or deny.

According to Kenneth Kapphahn, an analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the LAO didn’t even know how many Districts of Choice existed in California when they began preparing their report in 2015.

As part of the program’s last full reauthorization, Districts of Choice were required to send information regarding the demographics of DOC students to the California Department of Education, Dr. Danny Kim, the director of pupil personnel at Walnut Valley Unified School District, said.

According to Oak Park Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight, OPUSD sent reports about the DOC program every year directly to the CDE.

However, Debbie Look, a legislative representative for the Department of Education, said that no reports were ever received.

“We never received any funding to staff this program, so no one ever called out to Districts of Choice and no district ever notified us that they were DOC, so we had no idea even to call to request those reports,” Look said.

Even at the county level, the information could not be found. When the Talon requested records sent from Districts of Choice to the LA County Office of Education, no records were ever reportedly sent in.

Some rural districts sent information to the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, an online reporting system for districts.

“There is a place in CALPADS to enter information about the DOC report … so the failure of oversight and monitoring the program is squarely on the CDE and the Department of Finance,” Shoreline Unified School District Superintendent Bob Raines said.

Furthermore, students who transfer using the DOC program aren’t required to give information regarding their race or socioeconomic background to their district of residence. Information about students in the DOC program is only compiled by the Districts of Choice, which makes it difficult for districts of residence to gather accurate data on the demographics of the students who left.

Families show their support for the renewal of the District of Choice program (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon).
Families show their support for the renewal of the District of Choice program (Nick Burt/OPHS Talon).

“Of the DOC applicants approved to attend Glendora Unified School District this coming year … 14 percent are Hispanic, while 71 percent are white, not Hispanic, despite a high concentration of Hispanic students,” Duarte Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Allan Mucerino wrote in a letter of opposition.

In some cases, DOC districts and districts of residence have compiled and reported vastly different demographic data on transfer students.

Mucerino’s statistics came from nine of the 33 school districts that feed into Glendora USD.

In contrast, Glendora USD Superintendent Dr. Robert Voors wrote in an email that 53.9 percent of Glendora’s total DOC student population is Hispanic.

“I have not seen the Duarte USD letter… in which they claim Glendora has only accepted 14 percent Hispanic student from nine specific school districts,” Voors wrote. “I can’t speculate what the purpose was in using only nine of the 33 school district’s data to get that statistic. It comes across as intentionally misleading and in my opinion, a dishonest representation of our DOC population, since 54 percent of our DOC students are Hispanic.”

More locally, OPUSD’s own data collection doesn’t yet account for the demographics of DOC students.

According to data OPUSD employee Cliff Moore sent to state Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, OPUSD’s Hispanic population has increased from 7.4 percent to 9.1 percent due to out-of-district students. However, this number includes DOC students as well as inter-district transfer students and students whose parents work for the district.

What the numbers leave out: the marketing methods of Districts of Choice 

Despite the discrepancies between these districts, some existing data may indeed point to inequalities inherent in the execution of the overall DOC program.

“Some of the home districts raise the concern of race and ethnicities of students who left,” Kappahan said. “They felt that the students who left were not representative of their district’s population.”

The LAO reported differences in ethnic diversity between DOC students and those attending their districts of residence.

“It seems that overall students who transfer into the program are more likely to be white or Asian than their home districts and less likely to be Hispanic/Latino,” Kappahan said.

According to the LAO report, Hispanic students account for 66 percent of the students attending districts of residence but only 32 percent of DOC participants.

“This program, while perhaps intended to give choice, has had the increased impact of segregation within our district … we are left with segregated schools,” Dr. Linda Kaminski, the superintendent of Azusa Unified School District, said in her testimony to the Assembly Committee on Education.

The LAO also reported differences in socioeconomic status between DOC transfer students and those who stay in their home districts.

The statewide average for low-income students is around 62.5 percent, but DOC districts tend to have significantly lower percentages of low-income students than the state, according to the LAO. About 1 in 4 students who utilized the program are classified as low income — an average of approximately 27 percent.

Demographic data from Azusa USD and Glendora USD seems to show a similar gap, although the data differs between the districts.

“Only 12 percent of students that transfer out of the [Azusa School] District via DOC are identified as low-income, whereas 82 percent of the total district is identified as low income,” Kaminski wrote in the same letter of opposition.

Glendora said that, of 504 DOC students from Azusa, 185 students had access to free and reduced-price lunches — 36.7 percent of DOC students. Use of free and reduced-price meals is used by legislators and school administrators to determine the school’s population of low-income students.

“[Low-income students] transfer out of their districts at significantly lower rates in comparison to their demographic group in their districts,” Smith wrote in an opposition letter sent from the ACLU.

Often, the demographics of DOC participants mirror those of their chosen district.

In 2009, Rowland USD calculated that, based on 727 DOC students leaving their district, 52 percent were Asian, while 20 percent were Hispanic. In WVUSD, a popular destination for Rowland’s DOC students, 57.3 percent of its resident students are Asian.

Still, those demographics were very different from those of Rowland USD students, of which 60.9 percent were Hispanic and 20.9 percent were Asian.

This gap can widen in rural districts such as those in Kern County. According to the seven Districts of Choice within Kern county — a rural county in central California — data suggests a difference between students admitted on free and reduced-price lunches on DOC and free and reduced-price lunches in the district of residence.

In Maple Unified School District, for example, only 30.3 percent of admitted DOC students were on free and reduced-price lunches while the district of residence, Wasco USD, had a total of 88.9 percent of their students on free and reduced-price lunches.

“The law says that this program should not encourage unequal demographics and when we collected the information we were not sure why there was a large difference between Hispanics and free and reduced students with districts of residence and Districts of Choice,” Mike Hulsizer, chief deputy for governmental affairs at the Kern County Office of Education, said.

Walnut Valley High School’s drumline performs at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).
Walnut Valley High School’s drumline performs at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).

These numbers may not tell the whole story, however.

“One possible reason that there is a difference between certain ethnicities and economic levels is that the information provided by some of the DOC programs was in English-only and Spanish-speaking families provided no comparable information in their language on the programs,” Hulsizer wrote in an email.

Shoreline Unified School District, a district surrounded by dairy farms where first generation Americans and immigrants come to work, utilizes word-of-mouth to inform parents and students about their program.

“In practice, it is about word-of-mouth on the soccer field and people talking in the neighborhood and that’s because they talk,” Raines said.

Shoreline used to advertise in the newspaper until a few years ago.

“We don’t go out and do overt advertising because there were accusations that some docs were trying to attract certain demographic,” Raines said. “So we won’t do any outreach.”

A Talon investigation found that, of the four largest districts of choice, only one of the districts had FAQs and applications readily available in Spanish and English. All other information was solely referenced in English.

If 15 percent or more of pupils enrolled in a public school speak a single primary language other than English, all notices, reports, statements, or records sent to parents must be written in the primary language, according to Education Code 48985.

However, this code does not apply to out-of-district families who may be interested in pursuing the DOC program in the future.

One way to solve the inequality issue: the transportation amendment

As an amendment to the original bill, school districts would need to provide free transportation to students on free and reduced-price meal plans, and who live between two and 10 miles from the school. The new requirement would take effect in the year 2020, giving school districts some time to implement it.

“Politicians saw evidence in one our districts, Pond USD specifically, that transportation would be a good idea to increase minorities in this program,” Hulsizer said.

“About the only way to get a demographic equal from the district of residence is busing … and there has always been a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ of ‘this is my district and this is yours’ between local superintendents,” McKittrick Elementary Superintendent Barry Koerner said.

Surrounded by almond groves, Pond Unified School District, a rural school district, utilizes two public buses to transport many of their rural and out-of-district students. Pond is one of the few DOC districts that enrolls a higher percentage of low-income and Hispanic students in its district than live in the districts of residence.

McKittrick is another small rural district that enrolls less than 80 kids — more than 50 of them are DOC students.

Parents and students make posters to raise awareness of the death of SB 1432, a bill allowing students to use the district of choice program (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).
Parents and students make posters to raise awareness of the death of SB 1432, a bill allowing students to use the district of choice program (Stephen Burt/OPHS Talon).

Superintendents usually do not interfere with transportation in other districts as it creates unwanted tension, Koerner said.

Other school districts, like Walnut Valley Unified, have expressed reservations about the transportation amendment.

“We found [the amendment] problematic on an implementation scale because we are driving into local school districts that are already not favorable with DOC and picking them up and driving them back to our district,” Kim said.

Another part of the problem is the cost of transporting students — a cost which the school district must cover. According to Koerner, districts may end up using funding designed for high-needs students to pay for transportation.

Furthermore, the extended time allotted for implementing the transportation amendment won’t help DOC students in the meantime.

“The phase-in component of transportation was three years in and provides a significant delay in which students that are low income are still separated and creating an inequitable student population,” Smith said.

While the LAO recently produced a report on public transportation, no research has been conducted to see the possible effects it could have on participation in the DOC program.

“I think everyone is making assumptions that busing will increase participation, especially of Hispanic and ‘EL’ learners and underrepresented students,” Pond USD Superintendent Frank Ohnesorgen said. “But that’s a huge leap to make with no data or information.”

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