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Getting the Public School You Want

©1997 BY PUBLISHING 20/20


First, the basics: It's up to you to register your child with your school district when he's old enough for kindergarten. In California, that means reaching age five by December 2 (though pending legislation may soon push that date back). To take advantage of the open enrollment process, you may need to register as early as December of the prior school year-check with your district.

You may be required to register at your neighborhood school, or at the district office. Bring proof of age and immunization records for your child, as well as proof of residency (see below). All district registration/enrollment forms ask for address, birth date, current school, and desired school. Most request information on ethnicity, siblings enrolled in the school or district, and current enrollment in or need for bilingual or special education. These factors may be highly significant in getting your chosen school, so you must stay current on your district's policies.

When it comes to PROOF OF RESIDENCY, school districts have raised the bar. Whether they're fending off any "outsiders" they're not legally bound to admit, or just trying to make sure that the neighborhood kids who get priority at a school are truly neighborhood kids, don't expect to waltz in with a phone bill. Check the requirements, and bring all pieces of evidence (you may need three or four). These may include a property deed or lease agreement, paycheck stubs, utility or cable TV bills, driver's license, bank statement, or public assistance documents. Expect the district to verify them by phone. If there's any doubt, you may be asked to sign a statement under penalty of perjury. Some districts employ a Residence Verification Officer who makes unscheduled home visits.

Once your child is enrolled, the school and/or district will notify you of upcoming enrollment periods, and tell you where to pick up forms-generally at your residence school, sometimes at the district office or a special placement center. Some districts automatically send forms to students in the top grade of their elementary, middle, or junior high school who will be moving on to a new school.

High school academies and magnets, and specialized alternative schools may require a separate application in addition to, or instead of, the OER. Some require a portfolio of the student's work, essays, even an entrance exam or interview. Arts schools may require a visual arts portfolio, or a performing arts audition.


When open enrollment 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. (This rule applies only to open enrollment; in the case of newly registered kindergartners, and mid-year enrollments and transfers by students new to the district at other times of year, placement will be first come, first served as space allows.) However, other factors may apply to the lottery pool, as districts may prioritize these applicants into separate groups and draw from them in order. Your application to a school beyond your residence school may be ranked by other considerations (examples are listed below). Applications will be batched by these criteria, then drawn randomly from each batch, beginning with the first-priority group:

  • Residence in a priority zone (these differ from the traditional attendance zone, in that boundaries may be drawn to encompass certain income levels and ethnic concentrations in order to achieve balance);
  • Ethnicity, if the school has voluntary or court-mandated goals for ethnic balance and/or caps on the percentage of any one ethnic group in the student population;
  • Whether your child has a sibling(s) already enrolled;
  • Day care arrangements-some districts strive to coordinate with on-site programs, or busing to off-site providers;
  • Special education or language needs;
  • Medical care needs (e.g., proximity to a doctor for asthma attacks or diabetic monitoring).

Who wants to go through the search for good day care again? You do, if it might win your child a spot in a top-notch school. Some districts give open enrollment preference to students already enrolled in a public day care program at or near a school. Check your district's guidelines. (Just make sure you can find-or provide-transportation from your current school until a transfer comes through.)


Students transfer between districts (or from private to public school) for a number of reasons:

  • the family is moving residence, changing jobs, encountering financial changes;
  • child care arrangements or medical needs have changed;
  • the student needs educational services not offered by the residence district or private school;
  • the student and parents are unhappy with the current school

Under the AB 19 venture, Districts of Choice set annual limits on the number of interdistrict students they will accept each year, and may further deny transfer requests on the grounds that space has become even more limited. They must place transfers through a "random, unbiased" process (lotteries are the preferred method) in accordance with any racial balance programs. All require annual renewal of the interdistrict transfer permit. While most interdistrict transfers are requested throughout the year, some districts also process such applications during the open enrollment process as a logical component of school choice. Parents may ask for transportation assistance within the boundaries of the district into which they have transferred, but the district is only required to provide it to the same extent it already provides it to other students.

The following are examples of reasons for an interdistrict transfer under Ed Code §46600 (under which districts set up written agreements to accept transfers for just cause). Some county offices of education provide a helpful "Interdistrict Appeal Process Handbook."

  • The student desires a particular educational program not offered by your district, but available in another district.
  • Attending school in the district of residence would impose "substantial hardship or cost of before-school and/or after-school supervision" for the student.
  • The transfer is needed to get a student away from "harmful or dangerous circumstances or health issues" that the district of residence cannot address (generally requiring submission of a written professional opinion or court order).
  • A family has moved, after a student has attended at least 30 days of school in one semester in their district of residence.
  • District boundary changes place the student's school in another district.
  • Juvenile authorities, a court psychologist, or other comparable professional recommends in writing that the student needs a change in environment.
  • The student must travel through the requested district to get from home to his district of residence school.
  • The student lives within two overlapping districts.
  • The transfer is needed to accommodate child care or other substantial family needs.
  • The district has not met the requirements of its own interdistrict policy, and the transfer request meets the requested district's criteria.

To such a list, each district may add its own requirements. All requests require the approval of both districts. Here are examples of how some address such requests.

The district may grant an interdistrict permit if:

1) the student's parent works for the district;

2) the student's parent works within the district;

3) the student's family is renovating or building a home in the district.

These priorities apply when requests exceed space. When even first-priority requests can't be met, other factors kick in, such as how long a student has been enrolled at a school, how long a parent has been employed, whether they work full- or part-time, and whether siblings attend the school.

Some are official District of Choice but in practice they are able to approve very few requests from other districts.

Some districts (for example, Oakland) enter into contractual attendance agreements with adjacent districts each year, spelling out criteria and financial responsibilities. The district grants transfers out "with good reason," but the student and a family member must submit their request to the Director of Student Services, and meet with department staff before approaching the other district for approval. In both cases, the "Request for Transfer or Interdistrict Permit," if approved, leads to the issue of a "Non-Residence Attendance Permit," valid only for that school year.

Requests for a transfer out for special education services can receive especially close scrutiny.


School choice was conceived, at least in part, to woo back parents who had moved their children from the public system into private or parochial schools. If you're still considering those options, you must take careful note of your candidate schools' application schedules and any required financial commitments. Covering your bases with both public and private applications could cost you part or all of a private school deposit. (See below.)

Private and parochial school enrollment calendars and acceptance policies vary as much as the public schools', but a survey of some private schools shows most have a enrollment period (late winter into spring) that roughly overlaps the public districts' schedules. At least one accepts year-round applications. While you're free to change your mind about a public school, backing out of a private school application can cost you. Some charge a nonrefundable application fee. Deposits range from $90 to 10% of annual tuition, and while you may be granted a full refund for a prompt decision, your refundable portion dwindles over time. One school bills for these percentages of a full year's tuition upon notice of withdrawal:

May 1 – June 30: 30%

July 1 – 31: 60%

August 1 – 31: 80%

September 1 or later: 100%


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