Fixing Open EnrollmentStudents 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.