Monday, November 09, 2009



By Tania Chatila, Staff Writer | San Gabriel Valley Trbume

Posted: 11/01/2009 08:56:58 PM PST


When it comes to the estimated losses Rowland Unified School District has faced because of a state program allowing parents to send their children to any district, it really comes down to two figures: 2,000 students and nearly $28 million.

And now that the life of this program has been extended through 2016, some local educators fear it will just do more damage to already decreasing enrollment in the region.

The problem as they see it is SB680, co-authored by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. The bill was signed into law on Oct. 11.

It breathes new life into the 17-year-old District of Choice program, which lets participating districts accept students regardless of where they live - without the hassle of getting an approved transfer permit.

There are about 25 districts statewide that are part of the program, and three in the county - Walnut Valley Unified, Hacienda-La Puente Unified and Gorman school districts. Walnut Valley and Hacienda la Puente border the Rowland district.

Supporters of the law say it allows students and parents to choose where they can get the best education.

But opponents - like officials in Rowland - feel the program is unfair, and can lead to poaching of students.

"It's disappointing," said Rowland Unified Superintendent Maria Ott. "We tried to really pull forth the reasons why the Legislature needed to be very careful in this arena. Without oversight, it can become a program that is not reflective of good public education policy in California."

Ott said Rowland district lost thousands of students to other districts in the early 2000s. They haven't lost any more students since the 2006-2007 school year, but that's only because they can't anymore.

The bill does not allow school districts with an average daily enrollment below 50,000 to give up more than 10 percent of its students. That cap is calculated cumulatively.

"The reason why Rowland has continued to speak about this issue is because we have direct experience," Ott said. "I think this potentially could affect other districts."

At the 2,000-student Los Nietos School District in West Whittier, board member Nicholas Aquino said he's no fan of the program, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signing of the bill has "basically tied school districts' hands."

He's asked the board to consider designating the district as a "District of Choice."

"You're either going to be a wolf or a sheep," Aquino said. "Either you go out there and build up your (average daily attendance) or you sit back and let people steal (it)."

Aquino said legislators have created an adversarial situation among school districts in which they will begin seeking out advanced-level students to attend their schools and bump up test scores.

"I know people argue there are safeguards in the legislation against that, but it's phooey," Aquino said. "How are you going to prove that they're cherrypicking? And where does that leave the students who are struggling?"

In the case of Rowland, Ott said the district lost many of its students to an aggressive, targeted campaign by Walnut Valley.

But Walnut district officials say it was the vision of a former superintendent, Ronald Hockwalt, to provide any child an opportunity to attend schools in the district.

"The purpose of DOC is to provide the opportunity for taxpayers - parents - to chose where they want their children to go," said Walnut Superintendent Cyndy Simms.

She said the program encourages a competitive platform among educators.

"It helps all school districts, as they took a look at the programs they offer and consider implementing (other) programs," Simms said.

Huff said the recently-passed law includes some new language to help address the opposition's concerns.

But opponents say that's not enough, and Ott criticized the state for not formerly studying the legislation.

"I still have concerns based on the practical application," said Pasadena Unified School District board member Ed Honowitz, who believes there still exists a lack of oversight for the program.

"There are still concerns in terms of is this really fully addressing the needs of all students as opposed to some people are aware of the program and have access to it and others are not," he said.

Simms said the program could be part of a growing trend in the public school system to push American schools toward open enrollment.

"This is an issue that community colleges faced years ago," Huff said. "They used to be similarly treated where students had to get inter-district transfers. Twenty years ago they took away that restriction. There were similar concerns made, but the reality is it worked pretty much flawlessly."

Staff Writer Tracy Garcia contributed to this story.

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