The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recently released its evaluation of the State’s School District of Choice (DOC) program and recommended the Legislature and Governor extend the program for five years.
The DOC law was enacted in 1993 and allows a school district to declare itself a “District of Choice” and enroll students that live in other school districts. Under this program, school districts do not need to use the more traditional inter-district transfer process.
Brief Political History – The DOC program has not gone without controversy, in the early 2000s, Rowland Unified School District reported large numbers of transfers to Walnut Unified School District, which had declared itself a DOC. Rowland (roughly 60% Hispanic, 20% Asian, and 20% other) reported a disproportionate percentage of Asian students transferring to Walnut under what it described as deceptive and racially targeted marketing tactics. In 2009, the issue exploded when the Legislature debated SB 680 (Romero/Huff), which sought to extend the DOC program. At the time, the state’s funding for schools was in free fall and there was a heated race for the next State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Conservative Democrat and then-Chair of the Senate Education Committee Gloria Romero carried the EdVoice sponsored bill along with Republican Vice-Chair Bob Huff, as part of her campaign for State Superintendent. The bill was unpopular with Democrats in the Legislature because of the issues raised by Rowland, and related opposition to the bill from the State PTA, CSBA, Public Advocates, and numerous school districts. Ultimately, the bill became a proxy for the State Superintendent battle and because of backing by then-Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg and Governor Schwarzenegger, Romero was able to squeak the bill out of the Legislature and it was signed into law.
The DOC program was set to “sunset” or expire in law last year, but legislation extended the program through July 1, 2017. That legislation also required the LAO to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the program and present recommendations regarding the extension of the program to the Legislature.
LAO Review and Recommendations – Interestingly, when the Legislature authorized this evaluation it intended the LAO to use data collected from the annual reports that participating districts were required to submit to the California Department of Education (CDE), but the CDE indicated that it had not received these reports. Therefore, to provide baseline data for the LAO’s evaluation, the CDE conducted a survey where it asked Districts of Choice to identify themselves and provide data on their transfer students. The LAO noted, however, that this form of data collection was severely limited, with only 6 of the 40 respondents actually providing complete information. The LAO also conducted its own data collection efforts in preparation for the evaluation, contacting nearly 100 districts and conducting more than two dozen interviews with administrators from Districts of Choice and home districts.
Below is summary of the LAO’s findings:
- California has 47 Districts of Choice and about 10,000 students participating in the program. Districts of Choice are largely concentrated in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Apart from the five largest districts, most Districts of Choice are small and rural.
- Small Districts of Choice rely on the program for a larger share of their student population than do larger participating districts. The average share of enrollment from transfers through the program for small school districts (fewer than 300 students) is 36% while the average for larger school districts is 9%.
- Most home districts only experience small changes in their enrollment. Of the 197 home districts affected by the program, 136 have less than 1% of their students attending a DOC.
- About 1 out of 4 participating students is low income. An estimated 27% of participating transfer students are from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch. The share of participating low-income transfer students is similar to the average for DOC (30%) but much lower than the share for home districts (66%).
- White students transfer at a relatively high rate as compared to their proportion of their home district enrollment. White students account for roughly 20% of home district enrollment yet account for 35% of participating transfer students. Conversely, Hispanic students account for 66% of home district enrollment but only account for 32% of participating transfer students.
- The DOC program provides transfer students with additional educational options. Districts of Choice often offer educational programs not available in a student’s home districts, like college preparatory coursework, gifted/talented programs, specific thematic focuses, or specialized instructional philosophies.
- Nearly all students transfer to districts with higher test scores. The average API score for Districts of Choice was 871,well above the state average of 801, while the average score for home districts was 785.
- The DOC program often encouraged home districts to improve their own programs. Most of the homes districts interviewed had responded to the program by trying to do more to retain and attract students and districts reported that their efforts usually resulted in a least some reduction in the number of students looking to transfer.
- Oversight of the DOC program is limited because the state lacks reliable data for the program and the audit requirement is limited. Existing law requires Districts of Choice to produce annual reports summarizing the demographic characteristics of its participating transfer students but the state has failed to collect these reports. Additionally, the scope of the review for an audit is inconsistent across districts, due in part to the law prohibiting the state from issuing audit instructions for the program, and there is no system for remedying any problems identified during an audit.
Based on it’s findings, the LAO had five recommendations for the Legislature:
- Reauthorize the DOC program for at least five more years. The LAO reasoned that eliminating the program would be particularly difficult for those small districts that have come to rely on the program for a substantial share of their enrollment and that the benefits of the program, like additional education options, justified reauthorization. The LAO also indicated that reauthorizing the program for a longer period would also be reasonable but that five years was the minimum amount of time the state would need to implement and assess the effects of the LAO’s other recommendations.
- Repeal the 10% cumulative cap on transfers because its no longer necessary. Current law requires that transfers through the program cannot exceed 10% of the district’s average annual attendance over the life of the program. This 10% includes every student who has participated in the program, even if the student has graduated or left the program. The LAO found that the cap was no longer necessary since districts are now allowed to prohibit transfers that would notably worsen their fiscal conditions.
- Put the CDE in charge of specific administrative responsibilities. Specifically, the LAO recommended that the Legislature require the CDE to (1) maintain a list of the Districts of Choice in the state, (2) ensure all districts submit their annual reports, (3) post these annual reports and other program information on its website, (4) provide information to districts about the program, and (5) explore the possibility of collecting required data using the state’s existing student-level date system. To cover the cost of these new responsibilities, the LAO also recommended the Legislature provide the CDE with $150,000 in ongoing funding as well as one additional staff position.
- Replace the audit requirement with a new oversight mechanism administered by county offices of education (COEs). The new oversight mechanism would require a home district with concerns about a DOC to file a complaint with the COE. If, after reviewing the complaint, the COE determines the District of Choice is out of compliance, the district would be required to correct the problem before accepting any more transfer students through the program.
- Improve local communication about the program. Specifically, the LAO recommended the Legislature require Districts of Choice to (1) upon accepting transfer students, provide home districts a list of those students and (2) post application information on their website.
Despite its evaluation focusing on the DOC program, the LAO noted in its conclusion that the state’s inter district transfer system as a whole seems to consist of complex and overlapping set of policies and that a boarder review of California’s inter-district transfer policies is warranted over the coming years.
What’s Next? – We expect Senator Huff to introduce a bill in 2016 to extend the DOC program. However, it is important to note that some of the Democrat Legislators that fought the program extension in 2009 are still serving in the Legislature and may push for the program to sunset, or to extend it with changes to protect certain populations of students. Gloria Romero lost her bid for State Superintendent in the 2010 primary election and is not in an official position to advocate for the extension.
While the Legislature easily passed a bill last year to extend the program for one-year, that was largely seen as a courtesy because the state didn’t have data to inform a lengthier sunset extension debate. The LAO report, while based a little data, should be sufficient for policy debate this year.
Democrats wanting the program to sunset will face opposition for the school reform community, in addition to a larger number of Districts of Choice than were in existence in 2009, which may make sunsetting of the DOC program politically unachievable. The debate is likely to center on potential changes to the program.
- On February 12, 2016