Lawmakers push for school choice, districts say it could be hard to manage
A little-known program that allows certain school districts to enroll any student who wishes to attend - regardless of where the student lives and without permission from the home school district - is on the brink of revival by state lawmakers.
And that's not sitting well with many San Gabriel Valley and Whittier-area school districts, where administrators fear the District of Choice (DOC) program could cause an annual enrollment roller-coaster.
In most areas, parents who want to enroll their children outside of the district where they live must first get approved for a transfer or permit from both the district they're leaving and the one they want to attend.
But parents don't need approval from their home district to enroll their children at a DOC that has enough room to accommodate them.
And now, a bill co-authored by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, seeks to reauthorize the 15-year-old DOC program, which ended in July.
The bill, SB 680, would also give districts another chance to become DOCs after the initial deadline of August 2007.
In Los Angeles County, there are only three DOCs: Walnut Valley Unified, Hacienda-La Puente Unified and Gorman school districts.
"We believe that when a family would like a different option for their child's education, that option should be available," said Cynthia Simms, superintendent of the 15,000- student Walnut Valleydistrict.
"What choice does is create the opportunity for healthy competition," Simms said, adding that about 3,000 students are at Walnut Valley because of the DOC program. "And competition makes all of us better at what we do."
The bill has passed the state Legislature and is headed for the governor's desk. Gov. Schwarzenegger has previously expressed his support.
But area educators say the DOC program isn't all it's cracked up to be - and with a lack of state oversight and the current enrollment decline facing most school districts today, it's a recipe for disaster.
"The intent of DOC was to give parents more options, but it has become a tool for dealing with declining enrollment," said Maria Ott, superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District, which opposes SB 680 because of its experiences as a neighboring district of Walnut Valley.
Other districts that have gone on record against SB 680 include Pasadena Unified, Azusa Unified and Charter Oak Unified.
"It's not equitable," said Pasadena Unified School District board member Ed Honowitz. "Upper middle class kids can transfer to a district of choice because they have the transportation."
As such, Honowitz said, English-learner or special-education students "will get lost in the other district ... by virtue of their difficulties."
Over the years, Ott said her district has lost more than 1,700 students to DOC. That has led to a significant loss of state revenue and eligibility for state funds based on enrollment.
"Every district has to provide choice (of schools) within its boundaries," Ott said. "But this could potentially create a devastating impact on any district that might be affected by the decline of a neighboring district.
"How does that make for better public education in California?"
In the Whittier area, where there are seven small K-8 districts, officials said they have good working relationships with each other when it comes to interdistrict transfers, and they believe that policy is sufficient.
"Any school person would have a concern (with DOC) that they might lose too many students," said East Whittier City School District Superintendent Joe Gillentine.
"If there was a way to do it a year in advance so we would know the enrollment and whether we had to let go of teachers, then I guess that's understandable," Gillentine said.
"But to leave it to a situation where it's August, and school starts tomorrow, and now kids are going to another district and we have five teachers with five kids in the class - that would be hard on any school district."
Staff Writer Sandra Molina contributed to this story.
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