San Diego Unified has a bit of a conflict when it comes to offering students schools options.

For decades, parents have taken advantage of school choice, a program that allows students to transfer to schools outside their neighborhood.

That program consists of three main pieces: busing (which, historically, mostly took kids from low-income neighborhoods to schools in the west and north), magnet schools and school choice, an open enrollment policy that allows kids to transfer to any school, space permitting.

Learning Curve-01

Choice has been a popular option. In 2013-2014, 45 percent of district students – a total of 58,060 kids – attended a school other than the one designated as their neighborhood school. That was up from 33 percent in 2004-2005.

But that also works against the district’s bigger plan, Vision 2020, the heart of which consists of an effort to keep kids in their neighborhood schools.

The district knows it can’t end choice, partly because the program is a state mandate.

The Open Enrollment Act guarantees parents options. And a student whose closest school is in Program Improvement – a designation for schools that don’t meet achievement targets under No Child Left Behind – get preference at the schools to which they apply. (NCLB is being replaced, though, and officials aren’t sure how this might change the equation.)

Beyond the mandates, school officials know that restricting choice would have collateral consequences.

During a recent board meeting about the future of magnet schools, trustee Kevin Beiser said that if the board removed choice, some parents would go along with it but others would search out charters or private schools.

“We need to think very carefully before we take away choice from parents,” Beiser said.

This tension isn’t missed on moms and dads. Earlier this year, when enrollment at Ocean Beach Elementary was lower than officials projected, the district moved teachers from OB Elementary to schools that needed them more.

Marianne Reiner and other OB parents weren’t keen on the disruption caused by the teacher loss, and wondered if the problem could have been avoided had the school been able to accept more choice students who had applied to the school.

If those spots had been filled, they may not have needed to lose teachers. Reiner wondered if the district was denying students as part of larger, quieter effort to eliminate choice.

District officials later said that due to an unexpected dip in enrollment, OB had teachers to spare.

But the question Reiner asked – is the district eliminating choice? – is one that I’ve heard from a number of parents. It’s a fair question: Choice works against the plan to keep kids in neighborhood schools, after all.

Question: Is choice being phased out? – Marianne Reiner, OB Elementary parent

Let’s start with a reminder of how choice works.

During the district’s open enrollment period – between Nov. 1 and Feb. 15 – you can apply to attend other district schools the following year. You pick your three top schools, complete your application and then wait for a call. If there’s space at your top choice, your child can either attend that school, or stay at the neighborhood school. Same goes for the second and third choices.

During that time, district staff members are looking at enrollment numbers from school to school, trying to figure how much space will be available the following year. Based on that projection – and the number of seats a school has offered in past years – it decides how many choice spots it will offer.

Anecdotally, I’d heard from parents the district was offering fewer choice seats this year.

So in recent weeks, I asked various district officials if the district was planning to cut choice. Everyone responded with a resounding “no.” Choice isn’t going anywhere.

Officials do say, however, there are currently fewer spots available to students outside neighborhood boundaries than there were in past years. That’s related to practical changes like reducing class sizes, said San Diego Unified demographics expert Roy MacPhail. Lower class sizes means that schools take in fewer students overall. And because the district plans to reduce class sizes even further in coming years, choice seats will also go down.

At some schools, the district is removing portable classrooms, because they have a finite shelf life. In some cases portable classrooms simply won’t be replaced. That too can lower the number of spots available at a school.

Other schools, like Doyle Elementary in University City, are simply over capacity. The district is considering redrawing the school boundaries around Doyle, so some students are routed to schools that have more space.

A few weeks ago, I asked the district for data I thought might be helpful in comparing the number of choice seats available now to the seats that were made available in the past. But that data is difficult to untangle from the other factors that affect choice spots, said district spokesperson Ursula Kroemer, and wouldn’t give me a clear picture of what’s happening at schools.

I’ll keep working with the district to get a better picture of the numbers. But officials say there’s no truth to the idea that they’re phasing out choice in the interest of Vision 2020. It just so happens that fewer choice seats are available, which complements the larger effort to keep kids in neighborhood schools.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Apostrophes: Nikole Hannah-Jones on Race and Inequality (Longreads)

She was an all-American high school senior who excelled at everything she did. She took the toughest classes at her school. She was envied. She was the kind of girl for whom we imagine the doors of opportunity fly open.

But there was a barrier, one foreshadowed by the blackness of her name. D’Leisha may have taken the most rigorous courses her high school offered, but the rigor of those courses didn’t compare with the ones her white peers were taking in other high schools.

Hannah-Jones, whose work was featured in an outstanding episode of “This American Life,” here points out a great paradox: Progressives cry out for equity, but insist that it comes down to everything except race.

• What the Success Academy fight over kicking out students says about the charter movement (Vox)

Libby Nelson does her best sense-making from a bit of a distance like this, imo. Here, she looks at Success Academy, a high-profile charter school in New York which recently got outed for keeping a “Got to Go” list of problem students.

That is, the school was keeping track of which kids had discipline issues, and strategized on how to push them out of school, which is gross. Nelson does a good job of explaining why this is important.

• Home schooling, rapture figure into Texas Supreme Court case (The Dallas Morning News)

The top of this story is pretty great. I’ll let it speak for itself.

“Laura McIntyre began educating her nine children more than a decade ago inside a vacant office at an El Paso motorcycle dealership she ran with her husband and other relatives.

Now the family is embroiled in a legal battle the Texas Supreme Court hears Monday that could have broad implications on the nation’s booming home-school ranks. The McIntyres are accused of failing to teach their children educational basics because they were waiting to be transported to heaven with the second coming of Jesus Christ.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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