What do Barack Obama, William Jefferson Clinton, George Washington, Sonia Sotomayor, Cesar Chavez, Carlos Santana and John Muir have in common?
Each has a chronically underperforming California school named for him or her. Sadly, following the celebratory ribbon-cuttings, these schools have been left to languish on state-identified “watch lists.”
Disturbed by these lists and the seemingly little action to transform the schools on them, I wrote what’s been dubbed the “Romero” Open Enrollment Act in 2010, which provides unprecedented school-choice options for parents of kids trapped in failing schools solely due to default geographic assignment: ZIP code.
The act requires the identification and public release of the bottom decile – 1,000 schools – that have been chronically underperforming. The act gives parents the right to be informed of their school’s standing so they can choose to remain there (hoping that the school eventually gets transformed) or to transfer to a higher performing school. Los Angeles Unified has 99 schools on the 2015-16 list, Orange County has 52, Riverside County has 50, and San Bernardino County has 58. (See a full list at www.ParentEmpower.org).
Not surprisingly, schools identified as “underperforming” are often found in ZIP codes with higher minority and poverty levels. But what is particularly shameful is that many schools have remained on these lists for up to 13 years. Officials have failed to utilize school transformation tools available to them under federal law – such as staff reconstitution or transforming into a charter. Due to school assignment by ZIP code practices, these kids are simply trapped.
Where else in American life do we restrict an individual’s opportunities based on ZIP code? Restriction by ZIP code practices has largely eroded. A system to make our community colleges geographically restricted ended over two decades ago amid arguments that these restrictions were imperative. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now.
Sadly, the list of 1,000 schools has been largely buried in the California Department of Education’s website. Few parents even know about the law.
This fall, the newly established California Center for Parent Empowerment, which I founded, is launching efforts to teach parents about the law. Already, Orange County Office of Education trustees have discussed strategies to help their districts notify eligible parents. Other districts should follow their leadership.
Los Angeles Unified makes it difficult for parents to even access transfer applications by making them available only online or delaying release of the application until November even though the list is public now. These barriers should be removed, and ongoing meetings with their legal counsel offer hope. All districts should sponsor fall workshops so parents can file applications by Dec. 31.
The law is imperfect, and the formula utilized can be improved. But in writing the law, I didn’t just want to name names in order to shame schools. But absent a spotlight on failing schools, too many have simply been abandoned. The list forces us to commit to transforming “repeat offenders” or to allow kids to choose their own best educational opportunity – irrespective of five numbers that have restrained too many of them far too long. Is your kid’s school on the list? Find out – take action.
About the Author: Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.