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How a bill to make ‘District of Choice’ permanent in California could affect schools – Orange County Register

District of Choice, a state program that allows a student to transfer to another district if the family believes it would have better opportunities, is set to sunset in 2028, but legislation in Sacramento would extend the program indefinitely.

“Making the program permanent will provide much-needed certainty for the thousands of families across California,” said Sen. Josh Newman, a Fullerton Democrat who sponsored the bill.

“These families have been able to avail themselves of educational opportunities that otherwise would be closed off to them,” Newman said, “and they’re entitled to the assurance that their students will be able to graduate alongside their friends and classmates, regardless of home address or the politics here in Sacramento.”

Established in 1993, the District of Choice program allows students across California to transfer from one public school district to another; the idea is to offer students and families options for educational programs that might not otherwise be available in their home district.

Under the terms of the program, participating districts must determine the number of transfer students it can accept, and they cannot deny students based on athletic or academic ability, proficiency in English or other demographic characteristics. Students do not need to have a specific reason to transfer nor do they need to have permission from their home districts.

“This program is consistent with the broader effort to encourage innovation and improvements within districts and across the public school system in California,” said Newman.

In 2021, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which gives policy and fiscal information to the legislature, determined the program merits “reauthorization, potentially on a permanent basis.” The evaluation also found that students transferring under the District of Choice program gained access to, on average, five to seven courses not offered within their home district.

Across the state, about 9,600 students are enrolled in the District of Choice program, spread out over 45 districts, said Newman. For comparison, there were just over 5.85 million students in public schools in 939 districts in the 2022-23 school year.

“For all of the attention the program has gotten, it is not big,” said Newman, “but I think it is important because it is an opportunity for us to learn how to best encourage districts to improve but also to reward families. It gives them the autonomy to find a program that fits best for their needs.”

What’s the impact on local districts?

Extending the program would not negatively impact districts as much as critics anticipate, said Bill Jeynes, a professor of education at Cal State Long Beach.

Citing concerns that a large number of students would ultimately leave a more poorly performing district, Jeynes said: “I do not think we are going to have this massive exodus of children leaving schools. Proximity alone to your home district’s school is a huge factor for many students to stay put.”

An expert in school choice, Jeynes predicted the program would continue to see about 10,000 students participating, with enrollment numbers ebbing and flowing over time but not changing dramatically.

In Orange County, no districts participate in the program — although, certain districts do allow students to transfer outside of their home district for various reasons, including health, proximity to family and other social issues. Orange Unified School District, for example, allows students to transfer for health needs, interest in an educational program that OUSD does not offer or to be in the same district as a sibling.

Various spokespeople for districts around Orange County had the same message when asked why they do not participate in the program: They either 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 boundary lines.

And while OC districts aren’t participating in District of Choice, students still can. According to Newman, about 70 Orange County students attend out-of-county districts through the program.

Districts may choose not to participate in District of Choice, Jeynes said, because it could “open up the door for parents to send students who have severe aggressive tendencies to Orange County schools in an attempt to see them approve.”

“In other words,” said Jeynes, “some of the state’s best schools are in Orange County, and the area could get the short end of the stick.”

But Walnut Valley Unified School District’s board president, Helen Hall, says there the program is essential to district operations because it “ensures that all students have access to quality education.”

WVUSD in the San Gabriel Valley is the largest District of Choice program with 2,600 students enrolled, which is 19% of the district’s total enrollment. The district, with a total enrollment of just over 13,000 students, has the highest ranking for English and mathematics as well as its graduation rate, according to the latest data in the California School Dashboard, which uses state and local indicators to determine how districts perform.

“We believe that every child deserves the opportunity to thrive academically and personally, regardless of their background or where they live,” said Hall. “This program is a testament to our dedication to fostering an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.”

Hall said students in the program mostly come from school districts throughout Southern California, including neighboring communities within and around the San Gabriel Valley as well as Orange County.

What changes to the program does the bill propose?

Newman’s bill would increase state funding per pupil for students in free or reduced-price lunch programs, foster youth and English learner programs.

This increase in funding targets students transferring to “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, the calculation through various criteria — average daily attendance or amount of high-need students like English learners, foster youth, or students from lower-income families, for example — for how districts receive state funding. This supplements the funding districts are missing when they rely on property tax revenue alone.

Newman’s bill seeks to ensure that students receive sufficient funding regardless of the district they transfer to. It does this by reallocating the funds they would have originally received in a non-basic aid district to the basic aid district, even though the funding they receive there would be lower, said Brandon Wong, Newman’s legislative aide.

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 would exacerbate the district’s financial insolvency or would substantially harm its racial and ethnic diversity, said Newman.

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