California's "Open Enrollment Act" Empowers Students to Transfer Out of Underperforming Schools

Have you ever wanted to know if your child is attending a chronically underperforming school?

Well, start spreading the word: the list is out. Due to a law I wrote while serving in the California Senate, the 2010 Open Enrollment Act identifies the 1,000 chronically underperforming schools in California and empowers parents of kids enrolled in these to be able to seek enrollment in any higher performing California public school. The Act is particularly important for the hundreds of thousands of students who are trapped in chronically failing schools – yet their own school officials fail to exert turnaround efforts.

I wrote the bill because year after year I continued to see unpublicized lists of schools identified as underperforming. Yet, nothing was ever done. Even worse, parents of kids attending these schools had no knowledge of their school’s status. Unless a parent is wealthy and can send their child to a private school, most parents are forced to stay in their government assigned school – even when state officials have identified it as a chronically underperforming school.

But what happens when some schools are nothing more than dropout factories and school officials dare not restructure the contracts of the adults employed in them? Where else do we use geographic assignment – ZIP code – in vital aspects of American life?

Racial restricted housing covenants were barred long ago, freeing us to buy homes in any neighborhood. It’s unthinkable that a “local” health department official would assign your child to a “local” dentist based on your address. Have you ever driven across town to worship at the church or temple of your choice – imagine if your ZIP code was checked at the entrance? As families, we can pack up the car or get on the bus and go to any park we choose for a Sunday outing. Imagine the controversy if officials barricaded the entrance, telling you that this was not your “local” park: admission denied!

Yet in our American education system, a government bureaucrat who does not know you or your child, each school year designates your child to a school based on five digits – your ZIP code – regardless if it’s been failing for years. Even when school bureaucrats know that a school to which a student is assigned is failing, kids, and unknowing parents, keep being assigned to them. Indeed, ZIP code is the new five degrees of separation that can influence whether a child today will be one of tomorrow’s doctors or drop outs, inventors or illiterates.

The just released “Romero” Open Enrollment List for the 2014-15 school year can be viewed at The new Foundation for Parent Empowerment will work with parents to teach them about the law. The current list identifies schools from 515 school districts – some with an Academic Performance Index as low as 374 (the state targeted goal is 800). Almost every Orange County school district has schools listed. Some schools, due to formulaic pressures, should be excluded; many are “repeat offenders” necessitating radical transformation.


In writing the law, I didn’t just want to “name names.” But absent a spotlight on failing schools, too many have simply been abandoned. Compilation of the list is a revealing opportunity for Californians to begin to publicly identify chronically underperforming schools and finally exert pressure to use existing state and federal laws to transform them.

Automatic assignment by ZIP code is the complete absence of parental choice. Parents now have the choice: keep waiting for change, like the fictional characters Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly and in vain for the mythical Godot, or they can empower themselves and begin to vote with their feet and enroll their child in a school of their choice. That’s parent power – and it’s now the law.

Gloria Romero is an education reformer from Los Angeles. Romero 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.