Jacqui Irwin: Preserve the district of choice program

The Oak Park Unified School District, located in the heart of Conejo Valley, stands out as an excellent institution of learning for our young population.

Having earned numerous awards over the years as a top-performing district, its elementary, middle and high schools focus on creative pathways for students to excel in a variety of courses. In fact, Oak Park High School was recently ranked seventh among California high schools by Newsweek magazine and boasts robotics and computer animation courses so students can learn about science and art from a unique perspective. This is not your typical classroom experience.

Unfortunately, this district is facing a dramatic loss of funding due to state law. Oak Park Unified is known as a “district of choice,” which means it accepts transfer students from surrounding districts regardless of academic or athletic ability. As the law currently stands, the district of choice program is slated to end on July 1. This will effectively remove kids from Oak Park Unified and prevent any new ones from transferring into the district through this program.

California adopted the district of choice legislation in 1993, and it has been reauthorized by the Legislature several times over the years. Currently, the state has 47 districts of choice serving roughly 10,000 transfer students.

Students and parents often choose districts of choice because of the unique opportunities offered, such as college preparatory programs, science or language immersion courses, and project-based learning.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office outlined that most students transfer to districts with higher test scores, and the home districts often respond by improving instructional quality. After conducting considerable research into the program, the report concluded that it should be reauthorized because eliminating it would be disruptive to current transfer students and deny future transfer students the opportunities afforded at the schools.

As the second largest district of choice in the state, Oak Park Unified has nearly 1,700 transfer students who would be in jeopardy if the program were to end.

The Oak Park area is facing an aging population and does not have the number of children it once had. For this reason, it opted to become a district of choice and accept students outside of its borders.

Oak Park Unified estimates that if it were to end the district of choice program, then music and athletics programs would be scaled back, counselor ratios would be worsened, and there would be higher student-to-teacher ratios at all grade levels. It asserts that declining enrollment begins a downward spiral, with parents unhappy with the quality of education and transferring out to other schools or moving away.

Last year, I supported a bill that would have extended the district of choice program until 2023 and allowed more students access to the world class education offered in Oak Park. Unfortunately, this bill was held in fiscal committee due to concerns about the costs of reporting requirements.

We cannot let such a vital program expire. That is why I plan to introduce another bill this year that will extend the district of choice program for Oak Park.

I remain committed to ensuring our students receive outstanding education from a very young age through college.  Successful and creative programs such as those in Oak Park are exactly what California should be striving for to challenge our students to thrive.

With the sunset date of the program just around the corner, time is of the essence. As a policymaker, I believe it is important to protect great programs like these and ensure that our children are receiving the best possible education. I will fight hard to ensure that the district of choice program is extended and Oak Park Unified has the opportunity to continue to succeed.

Stay involved and make your voice heard in supporting Oak Park Unified and other districts of choice in the state by signing our petition. You can find it on my Assembly website at asmdc.org/members/a44.

Jacqui Irwin, of Thousand Oaks, is a member of the state Assembly, representing the 44th District.