Governor signs open district laws

GLENDALE — A renewed state law that allows parents to more freely transfer their children into certain campuses outside their home area could pit school districts against one another. The bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Sunday night renews a 17-year-old law that allows school districts to declare themselves “school districts of choice,” which allows students to transfer freely into their campuses from outside areas. Local school officials have criticized the law as potentially breeding unhealthy competition among districts.

“I don’t know how this will affect district collegiality,” said Joylene Wagner, a member of the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education. “The idea is to give people choice, and that’s a good thing . . . The choice initiative is designed to offer that same marketplace in education, it’s just a little wide open.”

The district has not participated in the inter-transfer system, instead relying on permits for out-of-district students. But under the renewed state law, school officials are helpless to stop students from transferring out.

“The danger is families just look at the [Academic Performance Index] scores,” Wagner said of the state tests that measure student academic achievement between scores of 200 and 1,000. “They can come to the conclusion that this school is good and that school is bad. They can be leaving a perfect school and that kind of concedes that idea that a lower score means it’s not as good a school and that’s just not the case.”

There are about 600 students on inter-district permits in Glendale, said Hank Paz, the district’s director of student support services. Permits are granted to students who used to live in Glendale or students with good behavior, attendance and average grades. Many live in Los Angeles, but many are children of district employees.

“We don’t believe in accepting a student into our district blindly, and that’s basically what an open enrollment student does,” he said. “They come in and don’t have to have the requirements we have for inter-district permits. There are so many unknowns to the open enrollment students, that’s why so few districts have attempted to take them in.”

State Sen. Bob Huff (R-Glendora), who co-authored the bill, said it should not cause counter-productive strife between districts.

“It will create a healthy, call it a competition, in that schools that do an excellent job will get more students [by being a district of choice],” he said. “The people that are most concerned are schools that haven’t been, for the most part, that innovative. The school’s bottom line is important, but the outcome for kids, empowering parents to help their kids, this bill does that.”

Walnut Unified is the largest school district in the county participating in the district of choice program. About two dozen of the 1,050 school boards in California have been districts of choice in the last 16 years, according to the California Department of Education.

Smaller school districts in the Bay Area have participated because it has helped maintain consistent enrollment and budget forecasts year-to-year, advocates said.

“Parents should have the best public school for their kids,” said Bill Lucia, policy director for EdVoice, a nonprofit of more than 40,000 parents, community leaders and educators that supported the bill. “[If] you’re a parent who hears of a neighboring school district that’s doing something really cool and they have space for you, the government is saying, it’s the public school system, and you can move to that district.”

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