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Smart choice for California schools

With a few changes, a bill allowing school districts to enroll students from outside areas would help kids and could open a new era of entrepreneurship in education.

June 09, 2009

One possible escape route from underperforming schools will be shut off at the end of the month unless legislation is passed to keep it open. The "district of choice" program that has allowed school districts to enroll students from outside areas is scheduled to expire July 1.

Schools that lose students to districts of choice -- in the Los Angeles area, this most notably involves 2,000 students who once attended Rowland Unified School District and now enroll at Walnut Valley Unified -- oppose the program because they lose vital funding based on enrollment, but that's a poor reason to scrap this 16-year-old option. Just as students are free to leave public schools to attend charter or private schools, they should have the right to attend another public school that is willing to take them, even if it means crossing geographic boundaries.

Under the program, a school district can declare itself a "district of choice," meaning it's willing to accept a specified number of outside students. It must accept all students up to that limit; if too many apply, it must hold a lottery. The number of students who can come from a single district is capped, but the home school cannot refuse to let its students leave.

The state has only a couple of dozen districts of choice. But there will probably be more if the program survives, because enrollments are declining after a period of overcrowding and there is more incentive than ever to attract outside students. We'd like to see it continue, and SB 680, co-written by state Sens. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), would achieve that by making districts of choice a permanent option.

Stronger oversight must be written into the bill before it is ready for approval. Lotteries should be subject to audit, and districts should have to report the demographics of the students who apply and are accepted. Otherwise, districts of choice could become districts of cherry-picking, enrolling top students while avoiding those who historically score lower and cost more to educate, such as English-language learners.

Rowland Unified, a good school district with relatively high test scores, reports that half the students it has lost are of Asian descent -- a group that tends to earn higher scores. Asian American families might simply have been more likely to apply for transfer to Walnut Valley, which has stellar scores, or they might have been given preferential treatment; there is no way to know under the existing oversight system.

With those changes, SB 680 could open a new era of entrepreneurship in education in which schools improve their programs in order to retain and attract students. Choice encourages excellence. The best possible education for students should take precedence over attendance boundaries.

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