Graphic Courtesy of Riverside Unified School District
John W. North High School

892 students to be affected by death of ‘District of Choice’ bill

In early August, chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, put an end to the District of Choice (DOC) program, an obscure but generously used school-choice program.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report, 892 students in Riverside Unified School District (approximately 2 percent of the total district attendance) take part in the program.

Timothy Walker, RUSD’s Superintendent of Pupil Services, said that he does not expect the sunset of the program to widely affect the district, continuing “We will not see a huge loss of ADA, because DOC transfers don’t make up that much of our attendance, unlike other districts of choice, where the DOC transfers make up around half of their attendance.”

However, the death of the program has raised concerns for the 892 students in Riverside Unified School District (10,000 students statewide), who may be forced to leave their schools at the end of the year if no compromise is met.

On the other side of the aisle, civil rights groups, home districts who have been losing districts and chairwoman Gonzalez have all voiced concerns that the law has increased segregation and discrimination towards poor and minority students.

Gonzalez said in a written statement that the law “exacerbates the unequal system of haves and have-nots.”

The LAO found that wealthier white students capitalized on the program much more often than those of a different ethnicity or lower socio-economic status, potentially due to lack of transportation. Overall, they found that the transfers are 35 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic or Latino, 24 percent Asian, and 9 percent other groups.

The original bill was set to sunset at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. A new bill, SB 1432, which included amendments that would solve some of the problems flagged by the LAO, including that of transportation, sailed through the senate floor with flying colors. This bill would extend the DOC program for another five years, sunsetting on July 1, 2022.

The bill, authored by Senator Bob Huff, was approved by three separate senate committees, the Assembly Education Committee, and by a 38-1 vote on the senate floor.

However, soon after, the bill was sent to its death in the suspense file by Gonzalez.

The program, which allows students to attend schools outside of their zoned district with the sole approval of the district of choice, has attracted both praise and concern.

Students who utilize the program generally transfer from their low-performing, impoverished districts to wealthier districts with higher test scores all around. Parents and students that take part remain supportive of the program.

Hannah Castleman, a senior at John W. North High School who transferred over from nearby Moreno Valley Unified School District, said, “I greatly benefited from transferring to North for the academically-challenging IB program.”

“It became clear that I wasn’t satisfied with the academics in my area when I was young and RUSD was much of the opposite… because of my transfer I’ll have a more competitive and well-rounded application when applying for colleges,” she continued.

The idea behind the bill is that districts that opt to be DOC will raise their academic standards to attract students, while the lower-performing home districts will amp up their efforts and education programs due to the increased competition in order to retain and attract students.

Walker said, “does it make money? No. does it increase our educational options? Yes. Does it keep our people employed? Yes.”

The LAO concluded that the program should be reauthorized for another five years in order to “implement and access” various recommendations.

In addition to advising the legislature to address the problem of possible inequity, the LAO also advised the Legislature to assign a new oversight mechanism, require the Department of Education to keep a list of DOC districts, and to repeal the cumulative cap (allowing students from any school district, regardless of its past DOC transfers, to transfer through the program), among other recommendations.

“We believe the benefits of the program, including additional educational options and improved outcomes for students, justify re-authorization. Moreover, eliminating the program would be disruptive for about 10,000 existing transfer students and deny future transfer students the educational options that have helped previous cohorts of students.”

Senator Huff’s new iteration of the DOC program specifically addressed these issues, but other lawmakers and protesters of the bill didn’t think it was enough.

The new bill addressed the problems of racial and socioeconomic disparities by requiring DOC’s to offer transfer students who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and free transportation as long as they live less than 10 miles away from the district boundary line.

The bill would also require the Superintendent of Public Instruction to maintain a list of DOC’s, and to collect information on the districts, making it all publicly available.

Despite the many disagreements down the aisle, Gonzalez and Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, who is pro-DOC, published a joint statement ensuring the public that they were opening the lines of communication and willing to “work with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in order to resolve these differences.”

The statement also assured parents that no student will be removed from their current school. However she made no comment about the coming years, after the program has sunsetted.

Also, despite this promise of cooperation, Gonzalez noted to an inquiry on her Facebook page that their has been no correspondence between her and Senator Huff.

Ultimately, the Legislature will have until July 1, 2017 to make a compromise or the 10,000 DOC transfers will be sent back to their home district for the 2017-2018 school year.