As a proud parent of a Rowland USD child, I was saddened by the opinion piece in the Tribune on Friday, March 12, 2010 “Don’t treat children like financial pawns”. The article was a one-sided take on a serious issue that is straining relations between neighboring districts that share a common goal of educating all children. On one side is Rowland USD, an outstanding district that is faced with declining enrollment and a reduction in per-pupil dollars, two issues that currently vex all districts in California. On the other side is Walnut Valley USD, also an outstanding district faced with identical financial problems. All districts in California are addressing this reality by reducing infrastructure, rolling back programs, and laying off employees. Though painful, shrinking to fit within one’s means is the responsible thing to do.
The difference between Walnut Valley and the other seventy-nine districts in LA County is that Walnut Valley has realized recruiting students from its neighboring districts is lucrative. They can do this because they are designated a School District of Choice. The intent of Choice was to “save” students in poor performing districts by allowing them to move to a high performing neighboring district. While the intent of the law was to provide choice to parents, Walnut Valley is abusing the legislation to bolster their revenue at the expense of families in surrounding districts. A protection clause to prevent such abuses is clearly written in the Choice legislation, which sets a 10% student cap from the initiation of the program. This was meant to prevent Choice from driving neighboring districts into insolvency. This is not a revolving number. If it were, surrounding districts would still be at risk of insolvency, which is expressly against the law.
Walnut Valley is hiding behind Choice to justify taking students from outside their jurisdiction. Growing evidence has surfaced from Rowland Heights and the City of Walnut that Walnut Valley representatives are actively recruiting particular students, essentially taking the best and the brightest from Rowland and other districts. In many cases, advertising is being targeted in Chinese but conspicuously not in Spanish.
No parent is opposed to the “idea” of choice… it is politically disingenuous to imply that anybody would be against choice. But this is no longer about parental choice. Hacienda‐La Puente USD is also a School District of Choice. The difference is HLPUSD practices Choice under the letter of the law. Walnut Valley’s aggressive interpretation is tearing apart our communities and effectively redistributing kids. Those with the greatest likelihood of success end up in Walnut Valley, while those with obstacles in their path to success are left in Rowland and other neighboring districts. We’re not talking about a poor performing district neighboring a high performer. Rowland and Walnut Valley are both great districts. But Choice ends up artificially bolstering one while eroding the other.
The great irony is that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Choice improves student achievement. In fact, it is equally plausible that improved test scores in Walnut Valley are actually due to the presence of out-of-district kids that were already high achievers. What’s worse, no analysis has surfaced that demonstrates Choice is a fiscally sound model to sustain a district to the benefit of its students. Rather, it puts a district in the precarious position where it’s annual budget is supported in large part by students who don’t even live in the home community. And if Walnut Valley is successful in this most recent push, that proportion could be as high as one-third from non-resident students! This is a dangerous gamble.
I am certain Walnut Valley supporters would disagree with me. Therefore, I invite Walnut Valley to allay my fears by providing us with the data. Give us a socioeconomic, ethnic, and demographic comparison between (a) the students accepted to Walnut Valley from outside the district, and (b) those that applied (including those that were denied), so we can make comparisons to the general Rowland population. How many special ed students are accepted? How many students from low‐income households compared to financially able families? Asians and Hispanics? If selective advertising to Rowland students is a myth and the lottery is indeed impartial, then there should be no statistical difference between any of the above-mentioned groups. However if there is a disparity, then Choice has become a tool for institutionalized segregation. Choice legislation requires a study be conducted to address these points. It is past due, and we are still awaiting that report.
We need clarification from our elected leaders, and we need the study that the legislation requires. Otherwise, this issue will continue to generate anger, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and it will further detract us all from the real issue at hand… how to provide the very best to all children in our communities.
A shorter edited version of this opinion piece appeared in the
Valley Tribune’s Opinion section on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. San Gabriel