State public schools in limbo over new way to rank schools

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- Some school districts in California are challenging the validity of a little known law that allows parents to transfer their children out of low performing schools and into better ones regardless of where they live.

The Open Enrollment Act is a state law passed in 2010 that allows parents of children enrolled in “low-performing” schools to transfer their children into better ones as long as the other district has room. A list generated by the state Department of Education in 2013 identifies the lowest 1,000 schools in California based on an Academic Performance Index score or API score.

After researching the law, Stan Helton, a father in the East Bay said he was excited by the prospect of being able to use it.

“To me it was a great law that a lot of families can benefit from, but evidently no one has been able to use it,” he said.

Helton is a father of two girls who attend a private school in Walnut Creek, but his family is zoned for two public schools in Concord that are on the “low-performing” list. He saw the Open Enrollment Act as an opportunity to transfer his daughters to schools in Orinda and Lafayette.

“Acalanes (Union High School District) said they’d be happy to take us, but we need a release and Mt. Diablo refuses to give me a release.

Helton said the Mt. Diablo Unified School District offered him a standard inter-district transfer instead of an Open Enrollment transfer, but he refused. At one point he said a district official told him the law had been repealed.

“They’ve said on their website that they’re not offering Open Enrollment to any families, not just me,” Helton said.

The Mt. Diablo Unified School District told KTVU by phone the list of “low-performing” schools is outdated.

The list was last updated in 2013 and the state Department of Education stopped generating API scores in 2014. They feel some schools on the list may have improved their scores, but there is currently no way to measure the improvements.

The Acalanes Union High School District agrees there are flaws in the system.

KTVU reached out to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to find out what is being done.

“There’s some question about how old the data is that establishes the list, but the list is the list and it is something school districts should follow,” Torlakson said.

Torlakson also said he understands there is some confusion among districts.

“There is a bill to change the law because the old testing system that the list was based on is gone,” he added. “We are moving into a new assessment and way of defining accountability.”

For now, the law is the law and schools remain in limbo until the state determines new ways to asses and rank schools.

Torlakson said the law applies to students currently enrolled in a public school on the list, not to children in private schools. A parent can choose to enroll their child in one of the “low-performing” schools, and then request an Open Enrollment transfer.

Under this stipulation, Helton’s daughters are ineligible for a transfer.

“The districts whose schools are on the list are obligated to tell the parents of their rights to transfer and I don’t think that’s happening,” Helton said.

Helton said he and his wife have decided to keep their daughters in private school, but he wants other parents to know the Open Enrollment Act exists and should be an option everywhere.

“I hope that the districts will follow the law ultimately,” he said. “I think families should be more informed of their rights to transfer and they should be able to.”

Any district who choose to not offer an Open Enrollment transfer would be in violation of the law and subject to legal action, according to Torlakson.

For more information on the Open Enrollment Act, click here

By KTVU reporter Christina Rendon.