No changes to Open Enrollment

For all its quirks and anomalies, the two-year-old Open Enrollment Act, which gives parents in low-performing schools the chance to transfer their children to a better school in another district, will remain unchanged. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have let a number of schools off the hook.

In his veto message for AB 47, Brown said that the changes would have cut the eligible schools from 1,000 to 150, which would “go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin) sponsored the bill because some schools with an Academic Performance Index of close to 800 – the state’s definition of success – and a few above that target were ensnared on the list. As a result, confused families in what they assumed were good schools were sent letters saying they could pull their kids and transfer out.

AB 47 would have excluded schools with an API above 700 two years straight and schools whose scores jumped 50 points in a year. Low-performing charter schools, excluded under the law, would have been eligible.

In case you missed our reports yesterday on key bills that Brown vetoed (Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547) and signed (Dream Act) on Saturday, check our earlier coverage.

The Open Enrollment Act was passed hurriedly with the Parent Trigger in late 2009 as the Legislature’s effort to bolster the state’s application for the federal Race to the  Top competition. Open Enrollment was to include the lowest-performing 1,000 schools, roughly 10 percent. But it excluded a number of small schools and schools for at-risk students, and no more than 10 percent of any district’s schools could be on the list. As a result, some schools that normally would not be considered failing made the list.

No one knows whether the law actually has had much impact. It was in effect last year for the first time, and there are no statewide numbers. However, potential receiving districts were given leeway to opt out by citing an adverse financial impact from taking on any new students.

Advocates, led by the nonprofit EdVoice, see Open Enrollment as a major victory for school choice for low-income, minority parents, but it does not appear to have been used much so far.

AB 47’s 700 API cutoff probably would have excluded nearly all elementary schools, since the average API is now 808, and many middle schools, too.

Brown’s veto message noted that the State Board of Education has the authority to exempt high-achieving students, and it has; it granted waivers to 96 schools that requested them, according to an analysis of the Board.

The number of State Board exemptions and AB 47’s API cutoffs angered Republicans in the Senate, particularly Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and an Open Enrollment proponent. Last month, when Huff threatened to delay the vote to confirm the appointment of State Board President Michael Kirst, two Senate aides I spoke with speculated that Huff might use the confirmation as a bargaining chip to defeat the bill.

The following week, Senate Republicans joined Democrats to confirm Kirst. Neither Brown nor Huff has said whether vetoing AB 47 was part of the deal.

As for the State Board’s exemption authority, Brown wrote in his message, “I expect the Board will thoughtfully exercise this authority and believe we should carefully review the implementation effects of the program before making significant changes.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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