The new school year is here and it’s a reminder to kids and parents that the quality of their schools is often determined by their ZIP codes. Children are assigned to public schools based on where they live, and it’s no secret that the quality of schools varies tremendously by neighborhood.
While some families have the financial means to move in order to seek out better schools, many others don’t, and the system forces them to settle for their zoned school, whether it suits their needs or not. Fortunately, school choice mechanisms, including charter schools, are increasingly providing parents with options. But California still has a ways to go, as evidenced by the state’s interdistrict transfer policies, which are supposed to help students enroll in schools across district boundaries.
Lawmakers recently extended the state’s “District of Choice” program, which is used by an estimated 10,000 students statewide. Under this policy, participating school districts are prohibited from imposing admissions requirements on transfer students, and families aren’t required to get permission from their home districts before transferring schools.
A study by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office gave the program a passing grade, finding that nearly all students in the program transfer to districts with higher test scores, and that a majority of parents reported improvements in the kids’ self-confidence, satisfaction with learning and motivation.
The competitive effects of the program even helped home districts, which responded to declining enrollment numbers by creating new offerings, such as college preparatory and science programs. For example, Bryant Elementary in Riverside Unified School District adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum to attract and retain more students.
But the LAO study also uncovered some problems, including the fact that only 5 percent of the state’s school districts participate in the program. As a result, most parents seeking transfer options across district lines are forced to navigate the state’s default transfer mechanism, which not only requires reluctant home districts to allow students to leave, but also permits the incoming districts to adopt admissions requirements that might include academic, attendance and behavioral standards that can be easily manipulated to cherry-pick only the best transfer students.
This is worrisome because research shows districts that are substantially more affluent than their…