District of Choice Symptomatic of a Larger Problem

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The story of an underprivileged teenager that manages to make the most of his or her education despite a modest background is a compelling one. It is a story that proponents of the California program District of Choice (DOC), which lets students leave their home school district in favor of a DOC district without any impediment whatsoever, say is more feasible because of the program. Arguments like these resulted in the bill’s renewal last summer, but the unseen ramifications went largely unnoticed. Given that the program can adversely affect low-income students and further economic disparity, the DOC bill should never have been renewed. Its revival only means continued income inequality among school districts.

The argument most often used in favor of DOC is that it allows poor students to attend comparatively wealthier schools and gain a stronger education. It is hard to argue against giving low-income students expanded educational opportunities, but in reality, the majority of students registered under the DOC bill do not fit this description. An evaluation of the DOC program, done by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), found that only 27 percent of students using the program came from low-income families. Considering that only 5 percent of districts in California are DOC districts, and only a fifth of a percent of California students are enrolled under the program, it has a modest impact at best on improving academic opportunity for underprivileged students.

Though the benefits of DOC are limited, its unintended ramifications can be severe. The same LAO report determined that transfer students under DOC are less likely to be low-income than students in their home districts, an important issue given that districts lose revenue when students leave for another district. In this way, not only is the DOC not primarily aiding poor adolescents in search of an education, it is actually hurting students who stay in districts that lose students to the program.  The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported that Azusa Unified School District lost $17 million in revenue as a result of students leaving through DOC to neighboring districts. The outfall from this program is symptomatic of a larger issue: severe income inequality between school districts. Seeing as how a significant portion of district revenue comes from local taxes, which are understandably higher in more affluent areas, low-income districts have little ability to make up income difference; losing money through programs like DOC only exacerbates the disparity.

Despite their findings, the LAO endorsed the renewal of DOC, citing that it provided students with expanded educational opportunities and encouraged non-DOC districts to improve their programs to avoid losing students. Their recommendation was narrow-minded. Behind the kids able to attend a high-quality school through DOC, there are many more students stuck in poor districts, districts that only serve to get poorer through DOC. The solution to the economic imbalance between districts is not to move a select few students to rich schools, but to reevaluate the way the education budget is divided and raise all school districts to an acceptable level, one which does not disenfranchise low-income students.

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