As parents of students in failing schools attempted to move their children to better districts nearby, a top official in one district lobbied his colleagues to block all the exits.
His reason: a decline in enrollment equals a drop in district revenue.
“As we’ve shared with you, we are denying most transfer requests,” Jaron Fried, an assistant superintendent in the Anaheim Union High School District, wrote another district’s official in a February 2017 email. “We requested that you also tighten up on letting students transfer out of your district (this will help with your declining enrollment as well).”
Fried’s email was part of a release of district records to attorney Craig Alexander of California Policy Center.
“After two years of fighting against an honest disclosure of records, it is disheartening to learn the apparent real motivation of AUHSD was to tighten up inter-district transfers,” Alexander says. “This decision was solely about money and not the student’s best interests. It took a court order to finally learn the truth behind the rhetoric.”
“The idea that students represent income dominates too many public school districts in California,” says Cecilia Iglesias, a Santa Ana City Councilmember and president of the Parent Union.
The Parent Union, which educates parents of students in low-income communities, includes the Anaheim chapter that called for reform of the policy.
California law allows parents to move their children because of transportation considerations, childcare, or specialized academic opportunities available elsewhere. Remarkably, schools do not allow students to transfer out of a district merely because a district is failing to educate them.
Fried said the context of his email was an attempt to get the city’s elementary school district to match the policies in nearby districts.
“When AUHSD reviewed its inter-district transfer guidelines in 2017, we established policy that was more in line with the transfer policies of neighboring school districts, which helped stabilize enrollment,” he says. “Because we serve the same families as Anaheim Elementary, it made sense to reach out in an effort to have our policies aligned.”
School districts are incentivized to maintain a tight grip on students: each student brings in some $10,000 to his or her district. If students move to other districts, the money goes with them.
“If they wanted to keep their students, they could have done what businesses do: improve their service to parents and students,” the Parent Union’s Iglesias said.
Anaheim Union High School District’s internal policy, enacted about the time of Fried’s email, ultimately led to more than 450 denials of requests to transfer out of the district. Most parents simply gave up at that point. But many appealed to the Orange County Board of Education, wrote Orange County Register reporter Roxana Kopetman. That led “to a spike in the number of appeals being heard by the Orange County Board of Education — appeals that are often emotional and highly charged, with parents and students sometimes describing the new transfer rules as unfair.”
In August 2017, six months after Fried revealed the financial logic behind the district’s new initiative, the county board overturned nearly all of the district’s denials.
“First and foremost, we’re going to look out for the best interest of the child and their working parents to ensure that school boundaries aren’t barriers for the children,” county trustee Linda Lindholm told the Register at the time.
Fried’s comment was part of his reply to a counterpart in the Anaheim Elementary School District. In her email, that official had asked Fried why so many parents of former elementary students were returning to her office to ask “for a hard copy of their AESD inter-district transfer. What is the need?”
“My guess is that they want to show us that ‘AESD released our child, how come you’re not?’” Fried replied. “That’s why we requested that you also tighten up on letting students transfer out of your district (this will help with your declining enrollment as well).”
Fried’s thinking was apparently so uncontroversial inside district offices that he added a school principal to his email.
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Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center. To contact Will, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @WillSwaim.