Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: California’s system to enroll students is crazy

Transitional kindergarten student Mia Tinajero talks to her father, Jesus Tinajero, on her first day of school at Marion Mix Elementary in Elk Grove on Aug. 13. Joe Mathews says the system for enrolling students puts parents through the grinder.
Transitional kindergarten student Mia Tinajero talks to her father, Jesus Tinajero, on her first day of school at Marion Mix Elementary in Elk Grove on Aug. 13. Joe Mathews says the system for enrolling students puts parents through the grinder. rpench@sacbee.com

“Is this the line for the U2 tickets?” a neighbor asked.

Nope. The line around the corner was just another group of California parents forced to prove that we actually live where we’re trying to send our kids to school.

With a new school year comes another fraught season of student enrollment. After years of hearing political rhetoric about the centrality of educational access in California, I’ve been surprised as a father to discover all the official hurdles to putting your kid in public school.

That long line was just one obstacle to make sure my 6-year-old had a seat in first grade. I wasn’t signing up for any special program, merely re-enrolling him in the same neighborhood school where he completed kindergarten in June.

The process began with my completion of our San Gabriel Valley district’s online “student verification.” It took me an hour to provide contact and demographic information and review 17 documents, whose 54 pages covered privacy, complaint procedures and my responsibility to monitor my son’s TV watching.

After completing online registration, I searched for paper documents that I was required to present in person to prove residency. I needed one document from each of three categories. Category one: deed of trust, escrow papers, lease, tax bill or a recent mortgage receipt. Category two: utility, cable or phone bills (from within last month). Category three: car registration, insurance, bank statements, pay stubs or tax returns. And no online printouts of bills accepted.

I have covered gubernatorial candidates who didn’t disclose this much.

While navigating these requirements is hard, figuring out whom to blame is even harder. My district is no outlier; school districts across the state have similar rules, following a 2011 state law. Given the dysfunction of California school finance, you can’t blame local districts for making sure they don’t let non-residents slip into their schools. The state often sends IOUs instead of cash. Local districts must reassure voters who increased their own parcel taxes to cover state funding gaps that only local families are benefiting.

Even so, the zeal to verify residency is a form of madness. Despite recent reforms, California’s educational system remains so centralized – funding, curriculum and regulations come from Sacramento – that we all effectively live in one statewide school district.

That reality makes it especially frustrating that even as parents are required to produce data on their kids, the state shirks its responsibilities to collect and use student data. Specifically, the state has been slow to build and fund its system for K-12 data, and has failed to follow other states in building databases to link individual data from preschool, community college and universities.

Gov. Jerry Brown has portrayed such data collection as a state mandate on local communities. But such a database provides the best chance to judge how the state is preparing tomorrow’s workers, and to help teachers identify ways to improve. A good database might even relieve parents of the hassles of providing so much information each fall.

In line at the district office, I waited nearly an hour before getting inside, where I produced a driver’s license and my residency documents. A few minutes later, I was told my child was enrolled.

But three days later, I got a robocall from the district saying my child wasn’t enrolled. No one could help me at the district office, so I banged on the elementary school door. An administrator let me, in, checked her computer and said everything was in order. The robocall had been just another glitch in a system that doesn’t make much sense.

Joe Mathews is California & Innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square and wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership with UCLA.

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