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New District of Choice Law: Will It Be a Detriment to Some and a Benefit to Others?

By Tahir Ahad, Brett McFadden and Adonai Mack - October 30, 2009

A few weeks ago, Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 680 (Chapter 198/2009) into law.  The bill extended the “District of Choice” (DOC) program until 2017 and made several significant changes beyond current law.  The new law goes in effect on Jan1, 2010.

The DOC is not a well known program in the annals of California K-12 policy. Under current law, a specific number of districts could be certified by the state to be DOC’s. This declaration allowed them to accept a specified number of inter-district transfers. A DOC is not required to admit pupils, but it is required to select those pupils that it does elect to admit through a random process that does not choose pupils based upon academic or athletic talent.

The DOC law does not require agreement between the district of residence and the receiving district in order for the receiving district (DOC) to admit interdistrict transfers, and the district of residence has little say in the transfer process. There is one main exemption to this rule depending on the size of the district of residence. Those districts with 50,000 or less Average Daily Attendance (ADA) may limit the maximum number of transfers each year to 3% of their ADA and may limit transfers for the duration of the program to 10% of their ADA. Those districts with more than 50,000 pupils in attendance may refuse to transfer more than 1% of their ADA.

The bill became a focal point in the broader political discussions surrounding parent choice and school reform. Supporters argued that the bill would give parents more say and control in determining the best education services and outcomes for their children. They also touted that the bill would bring about additional accountability and effectiveness on the part of all school districts since they would have to “compete” to keep their students.

Under SB 680, the DOC program has been expanded significantly. Specifically:

  1. Any school district can now declare DOC status via school board resolution. This will allow such districts to accept a specific number of interdistrict transfers without a separate interdistrict agreement per current law. However, these transfers cannot contribute to further racial segregation.
  2. A DOC district cannot reject a transfer request using the criteria that the cost to provide services to a student(s) exceeds revenue received as a result of the student(s) transfer into the district.   But a DOC district can deny a transfer request if it would require the creation of a new program at school site or in the district – with the exception of a program that would serve a special needs or English Learner student(s).
  3. But a district of residence is allowed to limit the number of out transfers if it currently has a negative budget certification, or if such transfers would adversely impact its ability to state-adopted standards and criteria for fiscal flexibility.
  4. The district of choice is required to give preference to siblings of children already in attendance in the district and to children of military personnel.

This raises a number of interesting policy questions.  For instance, what impact will SB 680 have on school districts statewide?  Will the result be an increase in the number of interdistrict transfers at the benefit of some districts at the detriment of others?  Will this cause “civil wars” between neighboring and nearby districts?  All good questions, but it is too early to tell.

There are some things district boards and management teams can do to plan for this new law.  We recommend:

  1. Raise the matter with your counterparts in nearby districts.  Superintendents and other cabinet level officers typically meet periodically within their counties.  School boards often have some sort of countywide body that can foster regional dialogue among local education policymakers.  Education leaders should discuss the issue to explore ways they can work together to avoid negative effects this new law could have on each other.  This is not a time when we want districts behaving like cannibals. 
  2. Consider the development interagency agreements with nearby school districts.  Such agreements could be reached via a joint memorandum of understanding with regional school boards.
  3. Do a self examination.  Identify schools, issues, or programs (in your own district and nearby) that could exacerbate the exodus of students in your district.  How could your district stem the flow of students to other districts?  Maximizing average daily attendance remains a primary mechanism to maintaining fiscal health.
  4. Study the programs and services offered at the neighboring districts, particularly those designated as DOCs. What do they have to offer that you are not offering?  Build attractors such as smaller learning communities and specialty schools to retain students and hopefully attract some from private and parochial schools.
  5. Have the updated information about the ethnic composition of your schools readily available.  It will help you in discussing and negotiating the matter with the neighboring districts in general and DOCs in particular.
  6. Prepare to develop fiscal impact studies and develop long term scenarios based on an assumption that one or more of your neighboring districts may become DOC.
  7. If you are considering becoming a DOC yourself, conduct a thorough and comprehensive analysis of costs and benefits. Not all shining things are gold!

Editor's Note:  Tahir Ahad is President of educational consulting firm Total School Solutions (TSS) Brett McFadden is Management Services Executive and Adonai Mack is a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA).