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State’s “District of Choice” Law Sized Up by Legislative Analyst’s Office

February 8, 2016

 

(Editor’s note: On January 27, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report on the state’s “District of Choice” law, which is scheduled to sunset in 2017, and is up for possible reauthorization. Below is the Executive Summary of the LAO’s report. At the end of the Executive Summary is a link to the complete report.)

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Executive Summary:

State Faces Key Decision About Whether to Reauthorize “District of Choice” Program. A state law adopted in 1993 allows students to transfer to school districts that have deemed themselves Districts of Choice. Two main features distinguish this program from other interdistrict transfer laws. First, Districts of Choice must agree to accept interested students regardless of their academic abilities or personal characteristics. Second, interested students generally do not need to seek permission from their home districts. With the program scheduled to sunset on July 1, 2017, the state now faces a key decision about whether to reauthorize it. This report responds to a legislative requirement that we evaluate the program and provide recommendations concerning its future.

Major Findings

State Has 47 Districts of Choice Serving 10,000 Transfer Students. Participating districts represent 5 percent of all districts in the state and participating transfer students represent 0.2 percent of statewide enrollment. Participating districts include a number of small districts located throughout the state as well as several large districts located near the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. Five large districts serve nearly 80 percent of all participating transfer students.

Transfer Students Have Varied Demographic Backgrounds. We found that 27 percent of participating transfer students come from low-income families. We also found that transfer students are 35 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic or Latino, 24 percent Asian, and 9 percent other groups. These percentages are similar to the average for all students attending Districts of Choice. Transfer students are, however, less likely to be low income or Hispanic than the students attending their home districts.

The Program Provides Transfer Students With Additional Educational Options. Students often participate in the District of Choice program to pursue academic opportunities unavailable in their home districts. The most common opportunities sought by transfer students are college preparatory programs (such as the International Baccalaureate program), academies with a thematic focus (such as science or language immersion), and schools with a specific instructional philosophy (such as project–based learning). Other students transfer because they are seeking a fresh start at a new school or because they want to attend a school that is more conveniently located.

Almost All Students Transfer to Districts With Higher Test Scores. The average District of Choice has test scores well above the state average, whereas the average home district has test scores slightly below the state average. Available data show that more than 90 percent of students transfer to districts with higher test scores than their home districts.

Home Districts Often Respond by Improving Their Instructional Offerings. Most of the home districts we interviewed had responded to the program by taking steps to gain greater clarity about the priorities of their communities and by implementing new educational programs. Most home districts also had improved their test scores over time. Districts reported that their efforts usually resulted in at least some reduction in the number of students seeking to transfer out.

Program Oversight Has Been Limited by a Lack of Data and Flaws in the Audit Procedure. Though the law requires Districts of Choice to produce annual reports containing information about the number and characteristics of their transfer students, the state has never collected these reports. In addition, the audit requirement the state added to the program in 2009 has been implemented inconsistently and contains no mechanism to address any compliance problems.

Recommendations

Reauthorize Program for at Least Five More Years. We think the strengths of the program, including additional educational options for students and improved district programs, justify reauthorization. Eliminating the program, by contrast, would be disruptive for existing transfer students and deny future transfer students the educational options that have helped previous cohorts of students. For these reasons, we recommend the state reauthorize the program for at least five more years, the minimum amount of time we think the state would need to collect better data and assess the effects of our other recommendations.

Repeal Cumulative Cap. In tandem with reauthorizing the program, we recommend the Legislature repeal a cap that limits cumulative participation in the program. This cap currently makes the program unavailable in certain districts regardless of student interest or program quality. In addition, the state modified the program in 2009 to allow districts to prohibit transfers that would notably worsen their fiscal condition. With this provision in place, we believe the cumulative cap is no longer necessary.

Assign the California Department of Education Specific Administrative Responsibilities. We recommend the Legislature require the California Department of Education to (1) maintain a list of the Districts of Choice in the state, (2) ensure all districts submit their annual reports in a complete and consistent format, (3) post these annual reports and other program information in one location on its website, (4) provide information to districts about the program, and (5) explore the possibility of collecting statutorily required program data using the state’s existing student–level data system. These efforts would help the Legislature monitor the program and help families learn about their transfer options.

Implement a New Oversight Mechanism. We recommend the state replace the existing audit requirement with a new system of oversight administered by county offices of education. Under the new system, a home district that was concerned a District of Choice was not following the law could bring its concern to its county office of education. If the county office of education determined that the District of Choice was out of compliance, the District of Choice would be required to correct the problem before accepting additional transfer students.

Improve Local Communication. We recommend the state require Districts of Choice to provide nearby home districts with timely notification of the students accepted through the program. This information would reduce some home districts’ uncertainty regarding the number of transfer students. We also recommend the state require Districts of Choice to post application information on their websites. This information would increase transparency and help the program reach students who might otherwise be unaware of their transfer options.

To read the complete report, click on the link below:

http://lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/3331

Source:  California Legislative Analyst’s Office



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