Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making School Choice Easier

Parents in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., gather for an informational meeting last year about the lottery process for public schools of choice. (Flickr/Wayan Vota)

It used to be simple to register your child for school – just go to your local school, fill out some paperwork and you’re done.

But in an era when school choice is increasingly widespread, the process isn’t always so easy.  

Families in some cities can now pick between neighborhood schools, magnet schools, specialized schools, voucher schools and charter schools. All those choices add complications. Each option typically comes with a different application, a different deadline and even different rules. How can local leaders make the process simpler and ensure that it treats families equitably?

“It’s creating some complex scenarios and issues for families and the system of schools writ large,” said Betheny Gross, a senior research analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).

An increasingly-popular strategy is to create a “common-enrollment system” that places students into both district and charter schools. Families fill out one application and list their preferred schools. A computer algorithm then matches the students with schools based on family preferences as well as available seats.

“The idea was to create an umbrella system that would streamline the process,” said Gross, who has studied common-enrollment systems.

Such systems have recently been instituted in a number of cities, including Denver, New Orleans, Newark, and Washington, D.C. Other urban centers are actively considering the approach, including Boston, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

Gross was joined by several other experts to discuss common (or unified) enrollment systems at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar last month in Boston. They looked at the strengths and limitations of the systems, as well as why the initiatives have proven controversial in some communities where they are being considered, such as Oakland and Boston.

Establishing the Rules

Neil Dorosin, the co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, said the systems are similar to the match systems that place medical school students at hospitals after graduation.

“In most cities, there are some schools that are really popular, some schools that are not as popular, and others where families really don’t want their kids,” said Dorosin, who has helped cities to develop unified enrollment systems.

Participating schools must agree on rules for how to place students when there are more applicants than seats available. Each community makes its own rules about whether to use a straight lottery or to give preferences to families living in the neighborhood, children who have siblings already at the school or to other kids with a certain talent (like music or art) or background (like being new immigrants to the country), Dorosin explained.

The system then places students based on their preferences, using those common tiebreakers, Dorosin said.

Dorosin and Gross, the researcher at CRPE, said that kind of system has several advantages beyond just avoiding the hassle for parents of having to learn all the different application methods.

Schools and families don’t have to go through a protracted waiting list process to fill seats or know where they are going. Students won’t enroll in a school to make sure they have a place, then leave because a seat opens at a preferred school.

“Every fall there was this wait-list shuffle,” Gross said.

Popular schools also can’t set early application deadlines so that they have first shot at filling seats.

But there is one big limit to what the unified systems can do – they don’t add any more quality schools. They only place kids in what seats are available.

”I talked to a lot of parents who got their fourth or fifth choice,” said Gross. “Once you get out of the realm of first and second choice, they often think of themselves as losing.”

Parents, she said, will say, “Thanks for the enrollment system, but how are you going to make sure my kid gets into a good school?”

Dorosin added: “Unified enrollment is just a way of giving out …what we already have.”

There’s also an issue, Dorosin said, of making sure that kids can find transportation to their top choice for schooling, even when they are located on the other side of the city.

“We can have the best science in the world, but without effective transportation it’s not going to happen,” he said.

In Boston, where the development of a unified enrollment system is being considered, the issue has sparked considerable debate, especially at a time when a pitched political battle is ongoing with regard to efforts to expand the city’s charter school sector. Indeed, resistance to common enrollment is often driven by concerns about the growth of charter schools in some communities.

Rachel Weinstein, the chief collaboration officer for the Boston Compact, said navigating that city’s existing plan for giving preference to kids in the same neighborhood is hard for parents, “even families who know how to work the system.”

With that in mind, she argues that a common-enrollment system makes sense.

But Weinstein of the Boston Compact — a partnership between the city’s district, charter, and Catholic schools — said she is still working to get feedback from parents and others before moving forward with plans for a common-enrollment system.

“We’re still developing, frankly, the details,” she said.

Unanswered Questions

Kim Janey of the group Massachusetts Advocates for Children, has deep concerns about establishing such a system in Boston, because there are too many unanswered questions.

She highlighted a number of such questions during the EWA session: What schools would be part of it? Would all schools, including charters, give neighborhood preference, or would all schools allow city-wide enrollment? Would they all equally accept students with disabilities? What happens to the often predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood schools that may be low on most people’s list?

“How do you be sure that this doesn’t create more of a two-tier system than what already exists?” Janey asked.

There’s also the question of why charter schools would want to join such a system. Panelists said successful charters that already have waiting lists don’t always want to give up control, while those with seats to fill want to be part of a system that boosts their enrollment.

In some cities, school districts are the only authorizer of charter schools, so the schools are under their wing and have to participate. In others, like Boston, a state board authorizes charters, so the district has no authority to make them join.

(In other states, charter schools may have even less connection to the home school district. In Ohio, multiple agencies, including nonprofit organizations, authorize charters, along with districts.)

Weinstein said some Boston charter schools want to participate in a unified enrollment system to help counter the impression by some families and advocates that they are not serving all students, especially low-income and minority families.

“That is their primary motive for being involved,” Weinstein said. “They could easily walk. They would still have waiting lists. They would still be fine. But this is a way of showing they are team players.”