veritas exquirere

Death of District of Choice bill could diminish parent choice

August 31, 2016

Segregation into a chaotic special education classroom environment was not what they had been looking for.

“[The school from our district of residence] never had a goal of integrating him into a normal first grade class … instead, he was corralled into a separate classroom,” said a District-of-Choice parent who asked to remain anonymous.

His son, Logan, whose name has been changed at the request of his parents, was placed into a special education class after he had been diagnosed with a muscular condition.

Logan began treatment at 3 years old and special education preschool at 4 years old.

There is a direct correlation between the quality of our schools and the District of Choice program,”

— Tony Knight

“The philosophy of the school was to have a special class where students spent all of their time … separated from their peers,” Logan’s parent said.

By the end of that first school year, Logan’s family went looking for alternatives. That’s when they found Oak Park Unified School District.

“It took one school tour for us to fall in love with Oak Park,” Logan’s parent said, “and by the end of the year, he was a normal member of a first grade class.”

Logan is now at Medea Creek Middle School, but his family doesn’t know whether he will be able to culminate with his friends.

In fact, approximately 10,000 students like Logan across California do not know which school they will be attending next year.

The uncertainty came after Senate Bill 1432, a bill introduced to continue the District of Choice program past its July 1, 2017 expiration date, died in the California state legislature Aug. 11, 2016.

The DOC program allows students from any public school district and grade level to apply to a California District of Choice without a permit from the student’s district of residence.

Unless a new bill passes before July 1, 2017, the approximately 10,000 DOC students across the state of California will go back to their districts of residence for the 2017-18 school year.

Parents and students watch as legislators and administrators advocate for the DOC program. Without the program, over 10,000 students would be forced to go back to their district of residence after July 2017. (Nick Burt/Talon)

Parents and students watch as legislators and administrators advocate for the DOC program. Without the program, over 10,000 students would be forced return to their district of residence after July 2017. (Nick Burt/Talon)

Although thousands of parents, students, and staff members will remain temporarily uncertain of their futures, legislators plan on waiting through the current session, which ends Aug. 31, before introducing a new bill in December 2016, Sen. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, the lead proponent of the program in the state’s legislature, said.

OPUSD, which is roughly 30 miles west of downtown Los Angeles, is the second largest District of Choice, with approximately 37 percent of its students from outside the district, OPUSD employee Cliff Moore wrote in an email. Of the 4,641 students attending Oak Park schools, approximately 1,700 are on the DOC program.

“This issue impacts every student and every staff member in Oak Park Unified School District,” OPUSD Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight wrote in a district-wide email.

With a significant loss of the student population, Oak Park Unified expects many of the nationally recognized programs to be severely affected.

Knight estimates that these students’ attendance amounts to $16.6 million in general funding per year. Without these students, 70 K-12 teachers, along with additional counselors and other staff,  would have to be laid off.

“The District of Choice program has given us the opportunity to build something here, and if we had not had these kids, we couldn’t have done this,” Oak Park High School Principal Kevin Buchanan said.

Many of the programs currently offered to students would be cut.

“We are in better shape than we have ever been with regards to our programs, finances and our student achievement,” Moore said. “Students that we have brought in from out of district have contributed immensely to our community.”

Walnut Valley High School's drumline performs at DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/Talon).

Walnut Valley High School’s drumline performs at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/Talon).

The District of Choice program also contributes to the surrounding community, Knight said.

“There is a direct correlation between the quality of our schools and the District of Choice program. The better the school district is, the better Oak Park is,” Knight said.

According to Gayle Caughey, a realtor for Troop Real Estate, Oak Park’s local real estate values are largely influenced by the “academic prestige” of the schools in the school district.

“People are often willing to pay more for a house in Oak Park due to the schools. Without the positive impact of the schools, [local] property values would decrease,” Caughey wrote in an email.

Other Districts of Choice may experience even more loss.

Unlike OPUSD, the majority of California’s 47 DOC districts are located in rural communities, where many families work in agriculture.

“Rural districts of choice would cease to exist; they only stay alive by reaching outside of their boundaries to those who are willing to drive to get their kids there,” Huff said.

But the future of these rural districts, and the future of OPUSD, won’t be determined until the start of the next session.

In the meantime, families like Logan’s will continue to wait.

“We cannot afford a private school,” Logan’s father said, “and to turn our son back to our neighborhood middle school would be hard.”

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