LEAs line up waivers as an out from Open Enrollment

Officials at the California Department of Education said Monday they are being inundated with waiver applications from school districts looking to be excused from the new open enrollment program.

Scores of applications have already been processed for the January meeting of the California State Board of Education and based on the number of inquiries that have been made to the CDE in recent days about the waiver option, officials said there could be as many as 100 districts seeking relief by early next year.

The Open Enrollment Act was signed into law in January, 2010 as part of the state's failed bid to win a federal Race to the Top grant. The program established a list of the state's 1,000 low achieving" schools and offers parents and students the option of transferring from any of the listed schools to a higher performing school even if it is outside their district of residence.

The program has proved controversial because the criteria for identifying the target schools required that no more than ten percent of the schools in any local educational agency may be on the list of 1,000 schools. The program also excluded court schools, community schools, community day schools, and charter schools.

More than half of the schools on the most recent list, which covers the 2010-11 school year, have API scores of 700 or better.

Many of the waiver applications are coming from districts that have high-performing schools on the list.

Rockford Union, for instance, is a single school elementary district in Tulare County where the test scores have hovered around the 800 mark the last three years which prompted an award from the state as a California Distinguished School in 2010 as well as a Title One Academic Achievement Award in 2005 and recognized as a Top Ranked Public School in the Consumers' Research Council of America's 2006 edition.

"I have no objections to giving parents more options for transferring their children," said Andy Schultz, Rockford Superintendent. "But for me now, to have to by law send home a note saying that we are on such a list - it makes no sense.

"Something has to be done about how this list is generated," he said.

Bob Bush, superintendent at Orcutt Unified, also has an elementary school with test scores over 800 on the list and is also in the process of filing a waiver application. He said the state's policy is contradictory when high-performing schools that hit the state's target of 800 could also be included on a list of low-achieving schools.

"To me, it's another black eye for California school reforms," he said.

Indeed, analysis of the list for the 2010-11 school year shows that 11 schools have been included with API's above 800; 222 schools had API scores of between 750 and 799; and another 250 schools had scores of 700 to 749.

The list for the 2011-12 school year includes 31 schools with API's between 807 and 800; 261 schools with scores between 799 and 750; and 245 schools on the list have API's between 749 and 700.

Complaints about which schools have been put on the open enrollment list began as soon as the first list was announced earlier this year. Now with new test scores to incorporate, another list has been generated and new complaints are coming forward.

Districts angry about being on the list, however, have not yet used the waiver process before and the politics surrounding their review before the state board should prove problematic.

Virtually all of the waiver requests coming into the CDE request the board take action under their general waiver' authority - which gives the state board very limited grounds to deny the request - such as approving the waiver will hurt student instruction or substantially increase state costs.

Also, under one of the board's recently adopted policies, waiver requests coming from high performing districts must be placed on the consent calendar as a matter of routine.

Finally, the open enrollment waivers will not be taken up by the board until the January meeting - which means after a new governor has been elected and potentially after a new administration has charted a new course on education issues.

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