Escaping Failure: California’s Open Enrollment Act threatens the status quo

Passing any kind of school-choice legislation in California—a state whose education system was once the envy of the nation but today ranks near the bottom—is a daunting task. The legislature, dominated by Democrats in thrall to California’s powerful teachers’ unions, is unwilling to disrupt the status quo. But the Open Enrollment Act (OEA), passed under the authorship of former Democratic state senator Gloria Romero, has survived various legal and political challenges. Barely two years old, OEA lets parents whose children attend the lowest-performing 1,000 schools in California opt out and send their kids to a higher-performing, non-charter public school anywhere in the state. As with California’s landmark parent-empowerment law, which Romero also wrote, parents don’t need to get permission to make important changes in their children’s education.

One might expect that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would be beating the drum for the law and making an effort to advise parents that they have a useful new education option for their children. But Torlakson, elected with the backing of the politically powerful California Teachers Association, maintains that open enrollment is “misguided” and that parents would rather see their local school strengthened than send their kids to another school. Torlakson is simply parroting the CTA line. The union lobbied heavily to kill open enrollment, claiming, among other things, that the bill would “create chaos in school districts and drain resources from local classrooms.” Chaos? Hardly. As for “draining resources,” the union is technically correct. State funds that would flow to failing schools go instead to more deserving schools as students transfer out. But the real reason that the CTA rejects open enrollment is that the law transfers power to another group—parents—who want an opportunity to get a better education for their kids.

Torlakson and the CTA fail to acknowledge that when parents have choices, all schools tend to improve. In February, Education Weekpublished “What Research Says About School Choice,” in which nine scholars analyzed the results of various studies concerning school choice. The report features no ecstatic claims, just offering a sober look at the 20-year effort to end mandatory school assignments by ZIP code. Researchers have found that test scores improved when students attended a school of their choice. They also learned that students at the affected public schools did better after choice was introduced.

Though Education Week’s research focuses on voucher systems, in which a student can opt out of a public school with tax dollars following them to a private school, California’s open-enrollment program applies only to public schools. Other states, including Indiana and Michigan, have begun OEA-like initiatives. In California, the traditionally low-performing Oakland Unified School District has been an all public- school-choice district since 2005. Almost immediately after the program went into effect, Oakland’s schools began an impressive turnaround. According to Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, Oakland has made the most educational gains of any urban school district in the state since instituting choice. Under Romero’s open-enrollment law, the same choice option is now available on a statewide basis. There is no fiscal impact on the state—only on the schools that gain or lose students.

School choice does more than improve educational outcomes; it lowers crime rates. The results of a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education measuring school choice and its effects on crime in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina appeared in February. Author David J. Deming examined an open- enrollment policy that allowed any student to apply to any public school within the district. If a popular school had more enrollees than seats, the district held a lottery. Deming found that a student who won the lottery was 50 percent less likely than a lottery loser to commit a crime. Among the high-risk male high school population, admission to a first-choice school reduced felony arrests from 77 to 43 per 100 students between 2002 and 2009. The greatest reduction in criminal activity occurred among the top 20 percent of high-risk students—mostly poor African-Americans.

California’s open-enrollment law isn’t perfect. It restricts participants and benefits only the children enrolled in one-tenth of the state’s nearly 10,000 elementary and secondary schools. The law further stipulates that no district can have more than 10 percent of its schools on the open-enrollment eligibility list, meaning some schools that would rank in the bottom 10 percent of performers statewide are excluded. Additionally, among the 1,000 schools, the law imposes quotas: 68.7 percent of schools must be elementary grades, 16.5 percent middle schools, and 14.8 percent high schools. Those ratios were written into the bill because they were in line with the proportion of bottom-performing schools in 2009. But by 2012, several of those schools had climbed out of the bottom ranks. Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis, also points to problems implementing “narrow” bills such as OEA. He explains that getting information to the parents that need it is a massive challenge, and that the yearly churn in low-achieving schools can be confusing. Though he has reservations, Enlow believes California’s open-enrollment program offers parents a taste of genuine school choice. As more parents experience the benefits, turning back will become harder and harder.

The state legislature wants to end open enrollment before that happens. Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat, last year sponsored a bill that would have eviscerated Romero’s law by slashing the number of eligible schools from 1,000 to 150. The measure—AB 47—easily passed both houses of the legislature, Thankfully, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in October, saying Huffman’s changes “go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law.”

Burdened with hurdles, caveats, and fear-mongering from its foes, the Open Enrollment Act lives, but it isn’t thriving—yet. Few parents seem to know about the law, but Romero plans to address that problem. As director of the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, Romero intends to start by visiting churches in low-income communities and speaking directly to the people most likely to benefit from the law. In a state in educational disarray—burdened by a Titanic-sized education code, school districts in scary financial straits, bullying teachers’ unions, and a 33 percent or so dropout rate—any attempt to empower parents is a welcome development.

(Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. Originally posted on City Journal.)