School Choice: Lessons Learned
A Retrospective on Assembly Bills 1114 and 19

A Discussion Sponsored by
The California Education Policy Seminar
The California State University Institute for Education Reform
February 1996

The California Education Policy Seminar

provides a neutral forum for state-level education policy makers and educators to gain in-depth knowledge about emerging policy issues. The seminars have contributed to the development, modification, and enactment of education reform initiatives in California.

The California Education Policy Seminar is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Walter S. Johnson Foundations, the Pacific Telesis Foundation, the Pioneer Fund, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Weingart Foundation and the Stuart Foundations.

The California State University Institute for Education Reform

is a recently created university-based policy center focusing on elementary and secondary school issues. Located on the California State University, Sacramento campus, the Institute is supported by the California State University Chancellor's Office.


Education Reform Today: School Choice and Assembly Bills 1114 and 19

Dissatisfaction with the public school system during the 1980s generated many attempts at education reform, attempts which differed widely in both focus and scale. Some, such as raising high school graduation standards and creating new curriculum frameworks, targeted the content of student learning. Others, such as charter schools and vouchers, sought to change fundamentally the organizational design and funding of California's schools.

The voucher movement in particular shook the very foundations of public education in California. The concept behind vouchers is grounded in the free market, consumer-driven-allocation-of-resources model which has been intriguing thinkers both inside and outside of the field of education since Milton Friedman first brought it forth in the 1960s. The model rests on the idea that, by empowering consumers, we make providers of a service or product more sensitive and more accountable to their market. Applied in its starkest form to education, this model translated as the provision of education vouchers to all parents in the state, allowing them to spend "their share" of taxpayer education dollars at any licensed educational institution in California, public or private.

California's voucher movement gained momentum during the early 1990s. The major legislative vehicle for vouchers, the initiative known as Proposition 174, ultimately failed by a substantial margin when put before the voters in November 1993. However, in the course of a long campaign hard-fought on both sides, acceptance grew in the state's education establishment of the separate concept of allowing greater consumer choice among public schools. Public school choice differs significantly from voucher proposals in not providing any taxpayer subsidy to private schools.

Two bills were enacted in 1993 as a direct result of this latter development. Assembly Bill 1114, by Assembly Member Dede Alpert, required local school districts to permit intra-district student transfers. Assembly Bill 19, by Assembly Member Charles Quackenbush, authorized districts to permit inter-district student transfers.


AB 1114 established California's mandatory program of intra-district school choice. The bill required, as a condition of receiving state funding, that school districts adopt a policy of open enrollment within their boundaries. The bill includes the following provisions:

parents who are district residents may select the school their child will attend regardless of where the parents live -- with the exception that the district must maintain appropriate racial and ethnic balances among its schools;

parents must be informed of the availability of open enrollment via notification during the first quarter or semester of each school year;

any school which receives admission requests in excess of its capacity must utilize a random, unbiased selection policy for deciding among applicants, with no consideration of either academic or athletic performance of the student permitted;

students whose residence is in the attendance area of a school cannot be displaced by students transferring into the attendance area; and

districts may continue to use existing entrance criteria for specialized schools or programs (e.g. magnet schools, special education) as long as they are applied consistently to all applicants.

Many districts also give priority under AB 1114's choice program to siblings of choice students. While not required to, districts do have the flexibility to choose this option.


Prior to 1993, education statutes provided students with a limited ability to transfer between districts on a district-by-district, case-by-case basis. AB 19 added a new scenario under which inter-district transfers may take place, allowing local governing boards to elect to accept transfer students, becoming "districts of choice." The program has a five-year sunset ending it in 1999. Participating districts must observe parameters including the following:

participating districts must determine the number of students they are willing/able to accept each year and ensure they are admitted through a random, unbiased process;

either the district of residence or the district of choice may prohibit a transfer if the determination is made that the transfer would negatively impact a court-ordered or voluntary desegregation plan, or the racial and ethnic balance of the district;

the district of residence may limit the number of students transferring out of the district annually to 1 percent of its current year estimated ADA if the district has more than 50,000 ADA, or 3 percent of current year estimated ADA if the district has less than 50,000 ADA (districts with less than 50,000 ADA may limit the maximum number of students transferring out to 10 percent of their ADA for the 5-year duration of the program);

districts of choice cannot reject transfer of a student based on the cost of educating that student, unless a new program would have to be created specifically to serve that student;

no student who lives in the attendance area of, or is currently enrolled in, a school may be displaced by a student transferring into the district; and

siblings of children already attending school in the district of choice must be given attendance priority.

It should be noted that AB 19's inter-district choice program is voluntary by district and has been adopted only very sporadically throughout the state.

Concerns about Choice

A number of potential concerns related to the implementation of ABs 1114 and 19 were apparent when they were enacted:

How would parents in the community learn about school choice? How would schools' efforts to inform the community about school choice affect their other public outreach efforts?

How would the transfer system work, and would there be mechanisms to promote fairness for everyone involved? Would choice provide opportunities for all parents, or only some? Would segregation by class take place as more sophisticated and/or committed parents moved their children to the "best" schools?

How would the key infrastructure issues -- the capacity of school facilities to absorb transfers, and the availability of transportation to move children around -- play out?

And what about California's complex and under-financed special education system -- how would it be affected by the availability of school choice?

Responding to these and other concerns about the implementation of school choice, on October 24, 1995, the California Education Policy Seminar and the California State University's Institute for Education Reform convened a seminar in Sacramento including school district administrators and board members, teachers, private education consultants, state legislators and legislative staff, and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Over the course of a half-day session, the assembled group reviewed their collective experiences working with AB 1114 and AB 19 and offered first-hand observations and insights regarding the above concerns and the future of school choice generally. What follows is a summary of that discussion and its conclusions.

Implementing School Choice: Four Districts' Experiences

In the course of the seminar, administrators from four school districts -- San Diego, San Francisco, Delano and San Juan -- presented their experiences with school choice. These four were invited because of their variety of experiences as urban, rural and suburban districts, and because they were further along in the process than many other districts. All four accepted the AB 1114 intra-district school choice program as a positive challenge, and became actively engaged in attempting to make the program work for their students and parents. While each shared most of the concerns mentioned previously in common, each also had stories unique to their district to tell. The variety of experience reflected the variety of circumstances the districts encountered in terms of parental involvement, facility and transportation needs, and simple demographics.

One theme which emerged clearly from the discussion was that, in spite of a number of issues needing attention from state policy-makers, the school choice programs in these districts are working smoothly. Only one district reported having had a single parent upset by the process, and the districts heard from at the seminar reported only one appeal of an inter-district transfer decision. Significant numbers of families are taking advantage of the availability of school choice, with very few instances of objection or conflict.

San Diego Unified School District

The San Diego Unified School District educates 130,000 children, including 13,000 special education students. The district has a program of voluntary busing for desegregation which is used by 11,000 students of color and 2,000 Anglo students. In school year 1994-95, San Diego's first year of school choice, 4,500 students applied for intra-district transfers. Of those, 3,200 ended up transferring; many of those who did not ultimately transfer either changed their mind or moved.

In implementing school choice, San Diego elected to separate choice applicants out from others seeking to enroll. Choice applicants are effectively fourth priority among enrollment applications, ranking after neighborhood residents, magnet/desegregation applicants and special criterion applicants (which include siblings of current students and parents seeking a specialized schedule or program of instruction for their child).

The district believes the key to its successful implementation of school choice was a strong emphasis on communication. The district spent a substantial amount of time developing and refining informational materials for its large and diverse parent population, and used both written and oral presentations to spread parent awareness of the choice option.

One specific outcome of the choice program that San Diego experienced was the popularity of certain of its high schools. When these schools were filled by choice and other transfers, the district began to see a surge of younger children applying for transfers to the elementary school feeders which would track them for these same high schools, thereby improving these younger age students' chances of attending their desired high school.

On the other hand, when individual schools lost enrollments, they were forced to regroup, make changes and market themselves more aggressively. This outcome -- schools which are losing students feeling strong pressure to change and adapt -- is exactly what choice proponents hoped would occur.

San Diego officials felt transportation represented a significant barrier to participation in school choice in a district of their size. The state provided no supplemental transportation funding to enable the district to move school choice students around, making this a serious fiscal issue for the district (the state has, in fact, reimbursed only 40 percent of districts' total transportation costs for the past ten years). The district was able, through its existing transportation system, to offer a few busing spaces to low-income choice students after the magnet and voluntary desegregation program students had been accommodated.

San Diego has elected to participate in AB 19's inter-district program in part because of an ongoing problem with ADA outflow to adjoining suburban districts. By becoming a district of choice and supporting district schools' efforts to improve and market themselves, San Diego hopes to reverse this trend.

San Francisco Unified School District

The San Francisco Unified School District currently serves 64,000 students. Of these, approximately 6,000 are special education students. Over 27,000 students participated in open enrollment in 1994, about 42 percent of the total student population in the district.

That so many students in San Francisco open-enroll is mainly due to the city's uniquely compact geography, and the strong system of transportation the district has developed in response to court-ordered desegregation. San Francisco's population density and extensive public transportation system make it -- like New York City -- an ideal environment for school choice.

As in San Diego, district officials in San Francisco made a special effort to communicate the presence of the school choice program to local parents. The district sent out a notice regarding school choice to every parent early in the implementation process and made an effort to have the program publicized widely in the local media. While contributing to high demand for certain individual schools, choice has also served to motivate San Francisco to redirect district resources in an attempt to turn the performance of their lowest-achieving schools around.

The district has been particularly concerned about the effects of implementing school choice on its special education programs. Because of its concerns, the district has applied choice to special education students on a case-by-case basis, reviewing options and wishes individually with students and their families.

Officials are concerned about two potential side effects of choice with regard to special education. First, they are worried about the possible dispersal of specialized district services if special education students spread out to a greater extent across the district. Second, they are concerned that the opposite could occur -- that virtual special education magnet schools might unintentionally be created because of a perception among parents that certain inclusion schools -- schools where special education students are routinely mainstreamed into regular classrooms -- are more desirable than others.

San Francisco also participates in the AB 19 inter-district transfer program but, according to district officials, has experienced no notable effects as a result.

Delano Union Elementary School District

Delano Union Elementary School District is a small district comprising 5,242 children in rural Kern County. As such, the challenges and issues it faced with regard to school choice were different from either San Francisco or San Diego's. The district does not operate under a desegregation order, but does face significant transportation issues due to its rural character. The district's primary method for informing parents about choice was by sending specially-prepared background materials home with students.

In its first year of intra-district choice, Delano had 95 applications for transfer. Of these initial applicants, 33 were already in the neighborhood of their school of choice and were admitted automatically (prior to AB 1114, some families had their children attending school outside of their neighborhood, and decided to return to their designated neighborhood schools through the AB 1114 process). The other 62 applicants were given the available transfer slots by lottery, as required by law.

One new issue the district encountered was of some parents being dishonest about the actual residence of their child. This phenomenon is doubtless related to Delano's biggest concern relative to school choice: insufficient capacity. As a small district in a community undergoing significant growth, Delano has had to virtually shut down the school choice program in its second year, because every school in the district is full. Officials expressed concern that additional growth in the next few years could potentially force them to "bump" current choice transfer students back to their neighborhood schools in order to accommodate new neighborhood growth patterns.

Delano has not implemented AB 19 to date. District officials reported that very few districts in Kern County had elected to administer the program, because most schools in the area are at capacity now and could not take any incoming transfer students, because they are concerned about being required to receive special education students with associated higher costs, and because they view the pre-AB 19 inter-district transfer process as adequate.

San Juan Unified School District

San Juan, a district of 48,000 students covering much of the suburban region east of Sacramento, has had district-wide open enrollment for 15 years. Because of this, and because San Juan was quick to utilize the magnet school option when it became available, a culture of healthy competition and specialization has developed among the individual schools in the district. The district encourages this entrepreneurial attitude by asking every school to establish a focus of some kind for its student learning programs, and by pursuing strong public outreach efforts.


San Juan Unified School District takes a unique approach to public outreach recently, bringing schools into perhaps the most appropriate setting for entrepreneurial self-marketing: the mall. In an all-volunteer effort, parents, students, teachers and administrators develop display materials and staff booths lining the interior of a large local mall, promoting the assets both of each individual school and of the school district as a whole. The end result of this now-annual event is increased involvement by all members of the school community, enhanced pride for each participant in their own school, and a significant increase in awareness of the programs and activities of area public schools by local citizens of all ages.

One way the district works to involve parents actively is to advertise widely the availability of choice in the district. If parents are interested in a school outside their neighborhood, they are asked to request their top three choices of schools for their child. First priority always goes to a child requesting their neighborhood school; outside placements are based on space availability. If requests exceed space, students are selected randomly by computer lottery. Once students are accepted for transfer, San Juan requires that they attend their new school for a year; they cannot turn around and re-enroll in their neighborhood school immediately if they change their mind.

San Juan has chosen not to administer the AB 19 inter-district program, in large part due to special education-related concerns. The district has strong special education programs which already attract a significant number of inter-district transfers under existing rules. Officials are concerned that opening up inter-district transfers further could result in an influx of special education students from outside the district which could overwhelm the district financially. In many cases, costs for special education students are much greater than the per-student reimbursement districts receive from the state and federal governments (often referred to in education parlance as "encroachment").

Lessons Learned: How School Choice Plays Out

Discussion of the four districts' experiences with school choice illuminated three distinct issue areas which demand further attention from both state policy-makers and local district officials:

access and fairness
special education


Because school choice is not meaningful without broad awareness of its availability, AB 1114 included language requiring parental notification. Each district represented at the seminar executed an effective community/parent outreach strategy, and found it to be the most important component of implementing school choice in their district. Choice, in fact, energized their communications with the local community, giving them both a mission to reach out and a positive message to communicate to local parents.

Many districts have also found that once better awareness has been achieved, choice is a tool for enhancing parent involvement by increasing responsibility for and pride in the school they have chosen for their child. For example, San Juan's initiative to involve students and parents in a highly visible public outreach effort at a local mall helped to invest these parents strongly in the success of their children's schools.


In many instances, choice has accelerated schools' efforts to market themselves to their communities. In addition to San Juan's successful mall innovation, schools faced with implementing choice have held information nights for parents, sent home parent surveys, escorted local realtors on neighborhood bus tours, and worked to foster a focus and individual identity for themselves. Each of these methods has proven useful both in increasing community awareness of school programs, and in improving the schools' public relations skills.

Choice has also required many schools on the losing end of transfer flows to reassess and rejuvenate their own public outreach efforts in order to counteract any negative trend in enrollments. District officials noted numerous instances of schools being driven to improve their efforts by events following the implementation of school choice. A key factor, of course, is the resources available to each individual school. San Francisco in particular noted cases where the district had felt it necessary to redirect funding to assist individual schools in making the changes needed for them to compete effectively in a school choice environment.

Access and Fairness

Access -- including issues of transportation and of capacity -- and fairness go hand in hand when it comes to school choice.

Transportation in particular is a factor which cuts largely along socio-economic lines. A persuasive argument can be made that if transportation is not a part of the program's package, school choice is primarily an option for well-to-do families who are able to provide their own transportation. In order to ensure school choice is not reserved only for the affluent, districts must be able to offer some transportation options under the program. If the state is genuinely committed to promoting school choice, higher levels of transportation support will be necessary.

Capacity can be a deciding factor in the success of a school choice program. If excess capacity remains at district schools, flexibility on who attends where is nearly always possible. But if schools are at full capacity already -- and/or if the region is experiencing rapid population growth, as Delano has -- then lack of capacity can effectively kill a choice program. Choice no longer exists when there is no room for students wanting to transfer.

A concentrated, effective communication effort has also proven vital to promoting fairness in the context of school choice. A lackluster approach to communication and outreach could exacerbate the differences in opportunity between those children of involved and uninvolved parents -- a continuum which tends to parallel the parents' economic status.

Under both AB 1114 and AB 19, children living in a given neighborhood have priority over other children in applying to attend their neighborhood school -- a key fairness consideration in the eyes of most parents. As Delano has experienced, however, this "fairness" provision can have the effect of eliminating school choice if capacity is a problem. Rapid neighborhood growth remains a common phenomenon in many areas of California, and districts are still struggling to determine the fairest method of balancing the interests of the new neighborhood student against the non-resident student with significant tenure at the impacted school.

Another fairness issue involves the student who transfers under a choice program, has their slot at their old school filled, and then changes their mind and wants to transfer back. Different districts handle this situation differently; San Juan has chosen to require transfer students to attend their new school for at least a year before being eligible to apply to transfer back. Others let capacity determine their degree of flexibility, with the principle of not displacing the currently enrolled student, regardless of their residence, generally holding priority.

Special Education

A key concern in the area of special education is the unintentional over- or under-concentration of services for this population of students. Both potential outcomes worry some district officials as they implement school choice. Might students requiring specialized instruction spread out further across the district, requiring a redistribution of special education resources and additional district expense? Or might so-called "inclusion schools" become magnets for special education students and become overburdened in the process?

A problem faced by districts such as San Juan, which have strong special education programs, is that participation in the inter-district choice program could attract more out-of-district special education students than they have the financial ability to serve. Disparities among school districts in special education funding accentuate this concern. In order for these issues to be addressed, a searching review of the state's special education funding mechanism is needed. The chief goals of this review should be to equalize funding among school districts, and to increase program flexibility in order to allow districts to provide the most effective services to special education pupils.


While not charged with tracking how many districts participate in the AB 19 inter-district choice program, the state Department of Education believes that there are less than ten statewide. A variety of explanations for this are offered by districts not electing to administer the program: concerns about being overburdened with special education students, lack of capacity, and sentiment among some districts that inter-district choice protocols under existing law prior to AB 19 are adequate.

A cynical view is put forward by some that there is a gentleman's agreement among districts not to pursue inter-district because it is administratively burdensome and could ultimately result in a loss of ADA to other districts.

A more disturbing explanation has been suggested with regard to urban regions of the state: that suburban districts don't want to be forced to take in low-achieving/minority students from adjacent urban districts. An example cited was that of Los Angeles, where LA Unified School District faces severe overcrowding even as suburban districts at its fringes close schools rather than accept inter-district transfers.

Dr. Bruce Fuller: Who Gains, Who Loses From Choice

In addition to the presentations by the four districts noted above, Professor Bruce Fuller of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education made a related presentation. Dr. Fuller offered the group an overview of Harvard's efforts to explore the implementation and implications of school choice programs nationwide.

Dr. Fuller commented on the dearth of evidence to rely upon, given that school choice is a relatively recent phenomenon. He also pointed out the wide variability of conditions nationally in terms of district structure, the amount of information offered parents, the degree of targeting of special-needs populations, and the amount of support innovative schools receive from the state, local parents and any foundations or other sources of funding.

The framework Dr. Fuller used for his review keyed on the issue of fairness, asking the question "who gains and who loses from school choice?" Dr. Fuller's answer entailed asking three further questions:

who participates in school choice?
is school choice driving innovation at participating schools?
what happens to the children left behind by student outflows resulting from school choice?

With regard to who participates, Dr. Fuller's answer was, those families where the parents are already actively involved in their children's education. These families pay attention to information sent home from school and ask whatever questions they need to in order to gain access to choice. They also, not coincidentally, tend to have higher-achieving children. Dr. Fuller pointed out that California does have a random selection provision tied in to its choice program to prevent schools from "creaming" -- but also that we, like every other school system with school choice, still face the reality of parent self-selection to participate in the first place.

With regard to choice driving innovation, Dr. Fuller's research suggests it has occurred in some cases, but not nearly to the extent free market proponents might predict. There has been little noticeable effect on either school functioning or student learning. Dr. Fuller suggested schools have not adopted effective plans or strategies to adapt to choice. Without strategic planning aimed at meeting the challenge of a "free market" education economy, improvement is rarely significant, where it occurs at all.

Dr. Fuller pointed to the academic fate of those in the schools "left behind" as the greatest unknown -- and concern -- with regard to school choice. No one has yet been able to measure what the cost is to the larger student body when higher-achieving students move on to another school. Do schools respond and reinvent themselves, or do people tend to despair and give up?


Dr. Fuller's review of the research focused on school choice programs in three areas across the country: San Antonio, TX, Milwaukee, WI and Montgomery County, MD.

San Antonio's choice program targets Hispanic students, who make up over 80 percent of the student population. The program centers on a set of multilingual schools providing total immersion in Latino culture, history and language, and has proven very popular for low-income families, with 82 percent of those participating coming from families with annual earnings of $35,000 or less.

Choice students did appear to be learning at a higher rate than their counterparts at neighborhood schools. However, despite strong participation from lower-income families, the San Antonio program still experienced sharp income-based differences. Relatively better-off parents participated in school choice in greater numbers than those less well-off even, among the pool of low-income families in the program. This occurred in large part due to the achievement-based admissions structure for the multicultural schools and the higher educational expectations relatively higher-income parents had for their children.

Milwaukee's approach to choice is a public/private voucher program specifically targeting students from low-income families (participating families' income may not exceed 175 percent of the poverty line). The $3,000 vouchers offered to eligible children have spurred rapid growth of Afro-centric and Hispanic private community schools in the city's ethnic neighborhoods -- and the concurrent development of black and Hispanic self-segregation into these separate community schools.

As in San Antonio, in Milwaukee those students most likely to participate in choice were those with the most involved parents with the highest level of education themselves. However, while choice parents are more satisfied with their schools, evidence suggests choice students in Milwaukee to date are not learning more or faster than their counterparts in neighborhood schools.

Montgomery County, MD (just north of Washington, D.C.) implemented a program of magnet schools in the early 1970s as an alternative to involuntarily busing to achieve desegregation. By 1987 there were 16 elementary school, two middle-school and one high school magnets.

However, an awareness gap exists between parents of differing ethnic and income backgrounds, stunting the program's effectiveness. Recent research shows that 72 percent of all white parents are aware of magnet schools, whereas less than 60 percent of black and just 39 percent of Hispanic parents know magnet schools are available to them. Most students exercising choice are from upper-middle income white and black families. In addition, parents showed a marked tendency to self-segregate, choosing schools with a preponderance of students of similar ethnic background.
Several members of the group commented on Dr. Fuller's findings, one pointing out that, while improved student achievement may not be the explicit goal of school choice, one of the results of choice was that students and parents felt better about the school environment, and this tended to have a positive effect on student achievement. Several agreed that choice should not be viewed as a comprehensive education reform strategy, but rather as one of many elements needed to achieve effective reform.

There was wide agreement that Dr. Fuller's national research points out many of the interesting dynamics that occur in school choice programs, and that California needs to duplicate his research here, in order to evaluate how our program is developing, what is working, and what problems and concerns need attention from the state's education leaders.

School Choice: An Agenda for the Future

The intra-district choice program implemented subsequent to AB 1114 has experienced a relatively smooth ride thus far, receiving largely favorable reaction from parents and students and very few complaints. The key forces determining the level of success were timely and useful information being supplied to parents, and the availability of transportation to move students around.

The ultimate success of school choice, however, will depend on the future attention given to the dynamics and finer points of the program by education leaders in Sacramento. Generally speaking, school site leaders are doing a conscientious job of raising community awareness of school choice and making the program work as well as possible -- but significant refinements are still needed to allow school choice to provide the widest possible benefits.

Final Thoughts

We must recognize that choice is not a panacea for the education system's problems, that it is merely one element in what should be a comprehensive education reform strategy, and that specific issues such as special education financing and inner-city student under-achievement still need targeted attention and solutions.

We must explore new ways to involve the non-involved parent -- we need to engage them at the start when their child enters kindergarten and encourage them to make choices that will invest them in the process of their child's education.

Recognizing that a majority of parents will consistently "choose" their neighborhood school out of simple convenience, we must acknowledge that market forces alone will not always energize those schools where parents and teachers are not highly motivated to make the needed changes.

The Legislature needs to consider funding discrepancies between districts in the context of school choice; if choice is to be fair to all, the issue of funding inequities must be addressed.

Following on the findings of this seminar, the Department of Education should make an effort to share individual districts' experiences under choice with districts across the state.

Content Contact:
Candy Friedly
Office Manager
Institute for Education Reform
California State University, Sacramento
6000 J Street, Sacramento, CA 95819-6018
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Last Updated: September 24, 1997

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