Fixing Open Enrollment

Students in worst schools can go elsewhere

Although it is not as well known yet as its fraternal twin, the Parent Trigger, Open Enrollment was the other reform that the Legislature rushed into law last year to jazz up the state’s application to the Race to the Top competition. And like the Parent Trigger, it’s a fine idea whose passage in haste has created unexpected consequences that legislation this year is attempting to fix.

Under Open Enrollment, students from the state’s lowest performing 1,000 schools – roughly the lowest 10 percent – have the right to transfer to a better school in any district they choose. The receiving district cannot discriminate against anyone who applies or target certain types of students for enrollment.

The State Board of Education adopted emergency regulations last summer so that Open Enrollment would go into effect immediately, although this fall will be the first true test of the law. Already, however, problems have emerged. The Legislature included a number of exceptions. It excluded charter schools  and restricted the Open Enrollment to a maximum of 10 percent of schools in any district – to limit the potential financial impact on districts like Los Angeles Unified (with more than 700 schools, many of them low performing) from a massive exodus. But the result was that higher achieving schools ended up on the list last fall, including a few elementary schools with API scores of over 800 – the state’s target of high achievement. The principal of an elementary school in Marin County with a large percentage of low-income English learners, with an API in the mid-700s, testified at a hearing this week that the law “wreaked havoc” at her school. Its API score had increased 50 points last year. So, in one moment she’s congratulating teachers and students for their achievement, and in the next moment sending a letter to parents informing them of their right to transfer because of low performance.

An amended version of AB 47, authored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin, would address these effects. Schools with an API score above 700 would be exempt from the list, as would schools whose API scores increased 50 or more points the previous year.

AB 47 also states that low-performing charter schools will be on the list, so students from those schools will be able to attend a better school in another district. The bill also makes it clear that receiving schools cannot exclude English learners and special education students. Open Enrollment has great potential to liberate families trapped in low-achieving districts. But the law also has a big loophole that will limit is effectiveness. Receiving districts pretty much have free rein in determining how many students from the outside they will take, and they can refuse any student – even if they have room in their schools – if they determine that having more students would harm the district financially.

If the state eventually adopts a weighted student formula, with more money for English learners and children in poverty, school districts will be more inclined to open their borders to students from low-achieving schools. In the meantime, some districts with declining enrollments may seek students from nearby districts.

It will soon be clear how many. Along with a 2015 sunset provision, the bill will require districts to keep track of the students they enroll and report the numbers to the Legislature.

AB 47 passed the Assembly Education Committee this week without opposition. Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, also has an Open Enrollment bill, SB 172.


  1. why include charter schools on the list?  Kids can already exit those schools.

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  2. The minimum we can do is require that districts allow students to leave and take their state funding with them to  a new district.  That per-pupil funding was intended to be used for that student’s
    education, not as a cudgel to be wielded by the central office to keep that student in an unsatisfactory school.  There are certainly districts with good schools that want to preserve those schools against declining enrollment, particularly at the elementary level, where escalating housing prices have often priced out younger families, leaving K-5 attendance areas with too few children.  Enabling those districts to provide a better education to another student is the least we can do.  But Open Enrollment is unlikely to become a major factor in improving the educational experience for many of our students.  The proportion of students in struggling districts to the available places in successful districts is just too great.  Students in high-poverty areas often live too far from any well-performing public school.  And finally, the proposed legislation doesn’t do anything for, say, an academically motivated student in a mediocre (but “non-failing”) school who finds a place at a better school in another district.  Districts especially like to keep their higher-performing students, to keep their test scores up, and administrators will probably continue to be very obstinate about letting those students off the plantation.  The focus of Open Enrollment has been on the students in the most challenging situations, and I hope it helps many of them.  But we have to remember that, here in California, many other talented and motivated students are trapped in schools that are operating well below what parents expect and what the students need.  We have +800 API schools that would not, by any stretch, be considered “high-achieving” schools in other parts of the country.  Those students are also an important part of our future, and it will take more School Choice than this legislation offers to help them succeed.

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  3. Why not allow all kids, in all schools, and in all districts to access open enrollment?  There are a great many reasons (ranging from bullying to wanting to access a specialized academic program) why a student or parent may not be a good fit for a particular school–and not just because the school has low standardized test scores.
    For over two decades, Minnesota’s open enrollment law gives this option statewide to all kids.  They also allow high school students the option to attend both public and private (gasp) colleges and universities, to earn dual credit, and to do so with the school district paying for the tuition.
    It’s time for California to shift from the 19th to the 21st Century.  It should open the doors to all kids.  At the same time, school districts should be permitted to open schools and offer academic programs in a broader geographic area than the confines of their local district boundaries.
    Why give school districts the right to hold kids and parents hostage?  After we get done liberating Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, perhaps we can get the Pentagon to give us some air cover to start the job here in California.

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  4. When I was in high school, I attended the local community college…it is known as concurrent enrollment. My credits earned there were then transferred back the the high school so that I could graduate early. No the district did not pay the fees, my parents did as it was an option, not a mandate. Both of my sons did the same thing.  So I believe  that in California it is still an option. Although with the continued budget cuts, I doubt that there would be room available for “part-time” students at the community college level. 

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  5. Maria, my district, and I believe many others, allow enrollment in community college courses, instead of regular high school courses, for “independent study” students.  Those are students who are at risk for not attending school at all (due to academics, behavioral issues, or social problems like bullying).  Thosecommunity college courses are usually “high-school-level GED-type courses” that can be combined with independent study courses arranged by the district.  Districts figured out that was one way to keep getting their ADA funding for that student.  What is much harder to arrange is co-enrollment — taking some courses at a local college and others at the student’s regular high school – where the college courses are a replacement for a high school course (e.g. a more advanced chemistry course, or computer science instead of math).  I don’t know anyone at my district who has succeeded with such a request.  (My district also doesn’t allow students to combine online coursework with regular high school attendance either.  No taking Mandarin online — we’ve got Spanish classes for your UC language requirement!)  Once they know they’ve got your ADA funding in the bag, they’re not too flexible.  To expand on Eric’s point above, there are many opportunities for “unbundling” our traditional public school academic programs, both to individualize learning for students’ various needs, while also achieving organizational efficiencies.  If we let that student out of Spansh or pre-calculus to take Mandarin or comp sci online, perhaps we could broaden our academic offerings, while also allowing the teachers in the traditional classes to spend more time with individual students.

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