Each day Suzanne White drives her daughters to school, she crosses an invisible border between the L.A. Unified School District in which she lives and Oak Park Unified, the higher-performing, much smaller district in which her children attend classes.
It’s a trip that many parents frustrated by their local public schools wish they could make — and that is possible for the Whites thanks to a little-known, rarely used California statute.
Called the “district of choice” law, it currently allows about 10,000 students across the state to enroll in 47 participating school districts without seeking the permission of their home districts, which are often loath to let them — and the funding attached to them — go.
“The schools out there are half the size, have better technology and are more innovative,” White said of the Oak Park district. “Why wouldn’t I try?”
But after more than two decades of flying under the radar, the law is facing new opposition.
Advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and school districts that are losing students to competitors say the law increases segregation and discriminates against poor and minority families who can’t drive their children across district boundaries.
After sailing through the state Senate, a bill to extend the law for an additional five years has foundered in the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, where Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has refused to let it come up for a vote.
Leaders of participating school districts say that if the law expires next July, they will be forced to lay off hundreds of teachers, send students back to their zoned districts and possibly even close schools.
Most of these districts are clustered around Los Angeles and the Bay Area and see the law as an appealing way of filling their classrooms and budgets at a time of declining enrollment. Walnut Valley Unified, Glendora Unified and Oak Park Unified each draw hundreds of transfer students.
“It would be devastating for us,” said Oak Park Unified Supt. Anthony Knight, who estimated he would lose more than a third of his $42-million budget and would have to lay off at least 70 teachers. Of the 4,600 students in his district, nearly half transfer from outside, and 10% live within L.A. Unified’s borders, he said.
“The people we get from the San Fernando Valley are choosing us over some of LAUSD’s best schools,” Knight said, touting his district’s smaller class sizes and specialized programs. “They are coming here because they want something else.”
Under the law, a participating district has to advertise that it’s willing to admit a set number of students and to let in all students up to that limit, regardless of academic ability or needs. If the district receives more applicants than it has room for, it must hold a lottery. A home district can’t refuse to let students leave unless there is an exodus so large that it does financial damage.
For White, 53, of Woodland Hills it was all about class size.
Until 2012, her children attended their local elementary school. But that year, White’s oldest daughter was entering middle school. She was supposed to go to an L.A. campus with nearly 2,000 students, from which she would matriculate into a high school of about 3,800.
White entered her daughters into Oak Park’s lottery, winning seats for both of them. Now, the thought of having to send them to their zoned school in 2017 is enough to make her cry.
“LAUSD to me is massive and impossible to navigate,” she said. “It’s not an option.”
The ACLU and other critics of the law say parents with time and money to drive to a neighboring district, like White, are the main beneficiaries.
The independent Legislative Analyst's Office found that 59% of participating students during the 2014-15 school year were white or Asian, while Hispanics made up 32% and left their home districts at lower rates than their peers.
With few exceptions, students who transferred left poorer, lower-performing districts for more affluent ones that posted higher scores on state exams, the report found.
Gonzalez’s staff said the San Diego lawmaker was unavailable for an interview, but in a written statement she said the choice law “exacerbates the unequal system of haves and have-nots in our public schools.”
Districts of choice, she added, “should be properly phased out while allowing current students to stay in the schools they are already attending.”
In response to concerns over access, the law’s supporters added language to the extension bill requiring districts of choice to provide transportation to transfer students from low-income families. But opponents say the amendment, which would not force districts to bus students more than 10 miles, doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s never been throttled like this before,” said state Sen. Robert Huff (R-Diamond Bar), who sponsored the measure to extend the law and was surprised when it ran aground in the Assembly. Lawmakers could revive the law next year, he said, but in the interim, thousands of students and parents will begin the school year with uncertainty.
On Gonzalez’s Facebook page, that anxiety spilled into a comment thread, where the debate raged long after the renewal bill was effectively dead. When Huff and parents rallied in Diamond Bar last weekend in support of districts of choice, Gonzalez responded with a post accusing Huff of playing partisan politics rather than negotiating with her.
Some parents said they would put their children in charter or private schools if the program ended.
“I’d probably home-school,” said Dolores Perez-Shenavai, 48, whose children are zoned for L.A. Unified but attend Oak Park High School.
“Before they kill the program, they need to ask why more people aren’t taking the opportunity,” she said. “If they choose not to, you can’t punish everyone else.”