School Choice Law Going Gangbusters California

Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), a California school district east of Los Angeles, has taken advantage of a 2010 California law that allowed it to declare itself a "District of Choice," meaning children from other school districts can transfer to any school within RUSD without approval from their home districts, says June Kronhol, a contributing editor for Education Next.

Students have flocked to RUSD because of its new science and technology middle school, a dual-language immersion elementary school and an all-digital high school, as well as an arts-centered grade school and a virtual school for third graders and above.

  • In 2010, the first year operating as a District of Choice, 161 students moved to Riverside schools.
  • In the 2012-2013 school year, RUSD saw 395 new entrants.
  • In 2013-2014, 535 new students transferred to Riverside from neighboring districts.

The Choice law was developed to encourage competition among districts, allowing them to offer unique programs that could better fit a child's needs. The idea is that schools will improve their own programs, and develop new ones, in order to retain and attract students.

  • Districts are not allowed to target certain types of students, like athletes or students especially skilled at math.
  • The transfers are not allowed to exacerbate racial segregation problems, nor is a district allowed to take so many transfers that other districts' financial stability is put at risk.

Almost every state has some form of district choice, but it varies state to state. Sometimes, states give admissions preferences to children in poorly performing schools or to minorities. Most states require district approval for interdistrict transfers. Lately, that approval has been hard to get. Some school districts, facing tight budgets and enrollment losses, have been reluctant to approve transfers.

California districts are not required to notify the state that they have become Choice districts, so there is no official tracking of the program.

  • But Jon Duim, principal in the Oak Park Unified School District, attempted to track the numbers as part of his 2013 dissertation for the University of Southern California.
  • He found 31 districts participating in the Choice program.
  • Duim also found that Choice districts had higher scores on California's Academic Performance Index than the state overall, scoring 833 compared to 788.

Source: June Kronholz, "California's Districts of Choice," Education Next, Summer 2014.

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