Stronger open enrollment laws would help California students
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Stronger open enrollment laws would help California students

Open enrollment lets students enroll in any public school that has open seats, regardless of where they live.

Despite steep enrollment declines in the state’s K-12 public schools, entrance into California’s top-performing public schools remains incredibly competitive due to restrictive district and attendance zone boundaries.

In the 1930s, the Home Owners Loan Corporation redlined neighborhoods in California, using residents’ characteristics, such as race, to vet homebuyers for federal aid housing loans, often labeling minority neighborhoods as “hazardous.” Although Congress outlawed housing redlining through laws passed in 1968, 1973, and 1977, many geographic school district and attendance zone boundaries still mirror racist neighborhood lines from the 1930s, limiting children’s education options today.

For example, Los Angeles’ Ivanhoe Elementary School’s attendance zone had an 86% reading proficiency rate and 75% math proficiency rate in 2018-19. The bordering elementary school, Atwater Avenue Elementary School, less than two miles away, had proficiency rates that were 49 percentage points lower for reading and 41 percentage points worse for math.

In his book, “A Fine Line,” author and financial analyst Tim DeRoche noted that Los Angeles residents might pay $100,000 or more in additional housing costs “just to gain access to specific coveted ‘public’ schools” because of the stark difference in performance of neighboring public schools.”

Education is a public service, yet, in Southern California and other areas of the state, high-quality public education is a scarce resource that wealthy families can purchase through their mortgages.

Policymakers, however, can start to remedy years of inequality in education through robust open enrollment policies that weaken the ties between housing and schooling. This policy lets students enroll in any public school that has open seats, regardless of where they live. While California has some piecemeal programs that do allow students to transfer schools, each program falls short of being a comprehensive policy that would do away with some of the lingering effects of government-sanctioned redlining.

The Golden State’s inter-district open enrollment options–the Interdistrict Permit System and District of Choice–allow students to attend schools outside their assigned school district. In the 2018-19 school year, 146,109 and 9,568 students participated in these programs respectively.

Unfortunately, school districts can opt out of participating in each program, allowing protectionist districts to exclude students from their schools—which they often do. For example, Fordham Institute’s Deven Carlson found that most of the affluent school districts in Ohio opted out of that state’s open enrollment program.

California policymakers should scrap the state’s labyrinthine open enrollment policies and adopt a single program that requires all school districts to allow both inter-district and intra-district open enrollment. Schools should only be able to reject applications because they’re full. To ensure that district admissions are fair, policymakers should also incorporate transparency requirements, such as requiring school districts to report to the California Department of Education the number of transfer applications the districts received and the reasons why they rejected any applications.

At the same time, policymakers should make sure schools are compensated for taking on new students. The Legislative Analyst’s Office found the 2017 reauthorization of the “District of Choice” program “significantly reduced funding for students transferring to basic aid districts (districts with high levels of local property tax revenue). We found that this reduction has led these districts to accept fewer transfer students. In addition, the students transferring to these districts are more likely to be disadvantaged than other transfer students. We recommend setting the funding rate closer to pre-2017 levels and providing a higher rate for low-income students and English learners.”

If open enrollment policies are going to succeed in giving families and students more education options, California’s school districts can’t be financially shortchanged for accepting transfer students, especially disadvantaged students. California policymakers should streamline and expand the state’s open enrollment policy to eliminate the archaic barriers that are stopping children from attending better schools.

A version of this column first appeared in the Orange Country Register.