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Getting the Public School You Want

©1997 BY PUBLISHING 20/20

School Choice and the Law

School choice doesn't mean all parents have to pick a school for their child to attend. The fundamental right to attend your residence school has not changed. Every district divides its territory into such attendance zones, and if you like the schools there, you may opt out of choosing (as many parents still do). Before choice legislation, families often chose to live "where the schools were good," and that's still a valid way to pick your schools.

But even B.C. (before choice) it was never quite that simple. As school-age populations swelled and shrank, districts could respond by changing their boundaries, busing students from overcrowded schools, or closing underattended ones. This still happens, but now parents, too, have the power to roam outside of their boundaries.

Overcrowding is not just a defensive ploy to avoid dealing with enrollees from other schools and/or districts; it's a real dilemma as funds dry up and baby boomlets hit unprepared schools. School choice, as well as development of special education and language services, have compounded the task of projecting enrollment, leading to multiple-choice registration surveys as schools struggle to predict and equalize capacity.

So just as you expect your school and your district to communicate with you, you need to keep them informed. At the outset, it's your responsibility to register your school-age (or soon-to-be) child with your district, and it's best to do it well in advance of enrollment time. Contact your district office for details.

Once your child is registered, you'll receive district notices about enrollment policies and schedules, and lists of schools open or closed to new applicants. Don't assume, though, that the district will keep you informed of all you need to know. Call, write, or go to the office to get your questions answered, and pick up information and forms. (Some districts prefer, or require, that you get these from your residence school.)


Choosing a school in the district where you live-other than the one assigned to your neighborhood-is often referred to as an intradistrict transfer, though a more accurate term might be intradistrict enrollment, application, or attendance. Just remember that intradistrict means within one district, while interdistrict means between districts.

Following passage of AB 1114, the California Education Code required each district to establish choice policies by July 1, 1994, according to these provisions:

  • Parents who reside in a district may apply to any of its schools.
  • The district must inform all parents of the opportunity for open enrollment in the first quarter or semester of each school year.
  • Students living in a school's zoned attendance area have a higher priority to attend a school than those living outside the area; that is, they can't be displaced by "outsiders."
  • Each district determines how many openings at each school can be filled by students applying from outside their zoned attendance area. Factors may include class size limits, and any racial and ethnic balances (whether court-mandated or voluntary).
  • When transfer requests exceed openings at a school, selection must be random and unbiased; that is, all requests must be pooled for a "lottery" drawing, rather than filling the spaces as requests come in. At this point, additional factors come into play, ranking students in groups for the drawing. These may include siblings already enrolled at the school, parents working close by (or even at the school), child care arrangements, and special or bilingual education needs.

Since about one in ten California public school students receives some level of special education services, this is often a key factor in the open enrollment process. When such services aren't provided evenly among schools-and neighboring districts-more parents will choose the schools with better services, potentially overburdening them. (Under Ed Code §46600, districts may approve "blanket applications," transferring groups of students with special education [or other, e.g. bilingual] needs.) At the schools and districts they leave behind, there's less need for whatever services did exist; the schools may feel impelled to cut back further, and remaining students receive even less than before. This situation calls for a hard look at how the state distributes special education funds, as well as district allocation and additional expense.

Since districts need only consider your open enrollment request and are under no obligation to honor it, you need to know what recourse you have when your child misses out on his chosen school-or when you feel the district has stonewalled you on choice. The current laws don't stipulate any real penalties, but you've got many approaches to try before calling in your state representative. Polite persistence seems to be the key, and the last section, "Assignments," offers guidance.


Considering an interdistrict transfer? You are well advised to study the California Education Code, because there are at least three different kinds, with different requirements. You'll need to know under which section your districts are operating. (The Ed Code can be found on the World Wide Web at

Under Ed Code §46600, districts may draft agreements to consider individual requests for interdistrict transfers for stipulated reasons (see "Applying") on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, schools have crafted blanket interdistrict applications to gain transfer for a group of students with common needs; for example, bilingual or special education. Some parents have found strength in numbers, winning a blanket transfer by presenting a case that their residence district could not provide adequate instruction or a safe environment. (Such an argument can be tough for a lone parent to win.)

AB 19 gave all parents the right to apply for a school outside their district of residence. As incorporated in the Ed Code (§48209), it allows, but does not require, each school district to become a "District of Choice," accepting transfer students from outside the district. Each district of choice sets a limit on the number of such students it will accept each year, and they must be accepted through a "random, unbiased" process (lotteries are the preferred method) in accordance with any racial balance programs. Districts may deny transfer requests on the grounds of limited space, or if the school would have to create a new program specifically to serve the requesting student.

Finally, the Allen law, incorporated as Ed Code §48204, expanded the traditional right to enrollment in a school near the parents' residence to include the right to enrollment of an elementary-grade student in a school close to a parent's workplace. When parents live and work in two different school districts, their children may now be considered "residents" of both districts (it's important to find out the specific policies of both your residence and workplace schools). This new option recognizes the demographic shift away from one home-based parent, to both parents or sole parents working away from home. Each district may require different proofs of employment for minimum lengths of time.

Ed Code §48204 does not guarantee acceptance of requests for interdistrict transfers to the district where a parent is employed, but the district may not reject a student on the basis of race/ethnicity, sex, parental income, academic achievement, or any other arbitrary consideration. However, the district may deny the student enrollment if granting it would (1) have a negative impact on mandated or voluntary desegregation; (2) require more to funds to educate the student than provided by the school's per-student government allocation (for example, if the student needed extra services); or (3) exceed the district limit on net transfers out. (Each district is empowered to set such a limit, based on total enrollment; thus, the maximum allowable transfers out depends on the number of transfers into the district.) Under Ed Code §48204, districts aren't required to offer an appeal process, but they must explain in writing the specific reasons for denial.

Under Ed Code §48204, a parent's district of employment may refuse to enroll their child if he would require services costing more than his per-student funds would cover. But Districts of Choice must adhere to Ed Code §48209.3; they may refuse an interdistrict transfer request only if they'd have to create a new program or provide a new service. Simply having to spend more than the student "brings in" is not grounds for refusal.


Though the term "transfer" is sometimes applied loosely, covering all types of enrollment in a school other than that of residence, there is a difference between an interdistrict OER, made during the annual application period, and an interdistrict transfer, a special request made at any other time and often subject to more scrutiny and procedural steps. It's easy to get confused, because many districts use the term "transfer" for both-just as they may use the term "intradistrict transfer" in reference to annual OER applications within the district. For this section we apply "transfer" specifically to enrollments requested outside of the annual open enrollment process.

Say what you mean, mean what you say. The educational community is notorious for its jargon-"edspeak," it's called. Ask school staff exactly what they mean by the terms they use-not just in their written materials, but in conversation.

The annual open enrollment cycle offers the prime opportunity for mass choice: announcements, applications, computer churning, lotteries, assignments, appeals, and a final shuffling process that fits every child into a school somewhere. But it's also a time of concentrated competition. And of course, you may have good reason (or need) to request a transfer at another time.

Although mid-year transfers usually arise from necessity (the family moves; you change jobs; you are unable to resolve problems at your child's school), school choice has produced a new strategic tactic: the calculated transfer, deliberately timed outside of the scheduled OER cycle. What are the pros and cons?

Some parents use mid-year transfers as a "back door" way of getting a child into their school of choice. The free-for-all of open enrollment is over, things have settled down, and perhaps their child can quietly slip into the coveted school that wasn't even open to OER applications. In districts that allow more than one school choice on the OER application, inevitably spaces are left unclaimed. And during the year, students need to leave schools for any number of reasons, leaving vacancies to be filled.

However, unlike OERs, mid-year transfers must always be justified. Neither the school nor the district is obligated to allow the move. Your request, being more isolated, may be scrutinized more carefully. Consider also how the change of schools will affect your child: the disruption and adjustment of being the "new kid" in mid-term. If you want the move because your child is struggling or unhappy in the current school, staff there may feel defensive.

Most districts set tougher requirements for interdistrict transfers than for transfers within the district. Both districts must approve the request, and all California school districts require annual renewal of an interdistrict transfer permit (with the exception of those made pursuant to Ed Code §48204; these are valid for five years).

Check with your county board of education for help with interdistrict transfers. They can provide information on valid reasons for denial, and may consider appeals or hold a hearing, if warranted.

Armed with this background knowledge, you're ready to plunge into market research: choosing a school.


© Copyright 2003, Publishing 20/20. All rights reserved.