veritas exquirere

The history of District of Choice

August 31, 2016

Enacted in California in 1993, the District of Choice program was established to generate more school choice for students and parents and to combat the charter school movement. Supporters argued that parents should be allowed to choose which school district best fits their child.

Originally designed as a five-year pilot program, the program has been reauthorized five times since its inception. Since then, 47 districts across the state have officially adopted the program, with an estimated 10,202 students in the program during the 2014-15 school year.

when districts go into declining enrollment in California, it’s a very serious situation [due to] a loss of funding,”

— Tony Knight

The process for a district to become a District of Choice is relatively simple; the district’s Board of Education must adopt a resolution, but otherwise the district does not need permission from the state or county government. Among the few requirements was the mandate that districts be indiscriminate in their admissions, which in many cases amounted to using a lottery system to select students.

Many districts, including Oak Park Unified School District, originally adopted the program to stay financially stable.

“We started to experience a steep decline in residence enrollment in Oak Park around 2004,” OPUSD Superintendent Tony Knight said, “and when districts go into declining enrollment in California, it’s a very serious situation [due to] a loss of funding.”

To combat this issue, Knight persuaded the OPUSD governing board to adopt the DOC program. The district later extended the program following the 2008 housing crisis.

“When the ‘Great Recession’ began in 2008, there was a large decline in state funding, but we stepped up the DOC program to make sure our schools were at full capacity,” Knight said.

Enrolling more students allowed OPUSD to avoid cuts to programs throughout the school district.

Despite its operating since 1993, no information had ever been comprehensively researched and compiled on the DOC program until 2015.

Two children protest to renew the District of Choice program (Stephen Burt/Talon).

Two children protest in support of the District of Choice program at pro-DOC rally Aug. 27 (Stephen Burt/Talon).

“In 2009, the legislature asked us to do a review of the program prior to the [original] June 2016 ‘sunset’ date,” Kenneth Kappahan, a legal analyst from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento, said.

In early 2015, the LAO report was still not finalized, and the DOC program was set to expire the following year. The program was extended for one more year pending the information.

“This report we released in January [2016] answered many of the questions the legislation asked us,”  Kappahan said, “including who uses the program, how does it affect school districts and should the state extend it or not.”

Huff used information from the report, titled “Evaluation of the School District of Choice Program,” to prepare a reauthorization bill of the DOC program — SB 1432 — for the August 2016 session deadline.

The new bill added several amendments to the original, which began to draw criticism as it moved from the Senate floor to the Assembly Committee on Education.

The bill included amendments addressing transportation for disadvantaged students, posting student transfer information online, and replacing the 10 percent cap on transfers to a rolling 8 percent cap.

The original 10 percent cap measured the number of cumulative DOC students transferring to a specific DOC from a specific district of residence, limiting the number of DOC transfers to only 10 percent of the average daily attendance from that district of residence. The cap is cumulative because it measures the total number of DOC transfers from the district of residence since the beginning of the specific district’s DOC program.  

The 8 percent rolling cap, however, would only limit the number of DOC transfers to a specific DOC to 8 percent of the average daily attendance from the district of residence each year.

SB 1432 had already passed the state Senate with a 38-1 vote in May and the Assembly Committee on Education with a 7-0 vote in late June.

Both administrators and legislators expected the bill to pass this session.

But the Assembly Committee on Education had received both opposition and support for the bill in their committee hearing in June.

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