In Districts With Lots of Choice, Simplifying Enrollment Is Not So Easy

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Creating a single-enrollment system for district and charter schools is touted by many K-12 policymakers and researchers as a way to streamline and make more equitable the school application process in cities fragmented by school choice. But getting buy-in from parents can be another story—one that's currently playing out on both sides of the country.

Both Boston and Oakland, Calif., have proposed plans to combine all district and charter schools into a single application process, and in both cities, proponents are facing pushback from some parents. In Boston's case, the issue is getting lumped in with larger concerns over funding and an effort to increase the number of charters in Massachusetts.

"I think we have a very sound public policy that could die on politics," said Rachel Weinstein, the chief collaboration officer with the Boston Compact, a partnership among Boston's district, charter, and Roman Catholic schools.

A common-enrollment system, also called single or universal enrollment, provides one application form for all or most public schools in a city. Families submit their top choices, and a computer uses an algorithm to match students to schools based on family preferences and available seats. So far, four cities—Denver, the District of Columbia, Newark, N.J., and New Orleans—use this approach.

Denver and New Orleans were the first cities to jump on board in 2012, although for somewhat different reasons. Denver officials wanted to simplify the application process for parents as the number of school choices expanded. Education officials in New Orleans, a city made up almost entirely of charters, had additional motivation: to stop charters from turning away students with special needs.

Mayoral Support

The idea for a unified enrollment system in Boston has been marinating for a couple years among district and charter school leaders. It's also a priority of Mayor Martin Walsh, who announced the proposal in September after proponents determined there was support from both charter schools and the Boston district.

"Right now, I can get a [Boston school district] assignment, and I can also go to charter schools separately and be assigned to multiple schools ... there could be one family holding five seats," said Rahn Dorsey, the mayor's chief of education. "And those schools that were planning for you to come have already been spending money, they've already held that seat for you and not another student who wanted to go there."

But a much bigger battle over charters has been heating up in Massachusetts, complicating progress toward streamlining enrollment in Boston. A full-court press by charter advocates to raise the statewide cap on charters faces strident opposition from teachers' unions. The statewide cap of 120 charter schools has not been reached, but some cities, like Boston, have already hit their regional limits. Charter advocates estimate there are 13,000 students on waitlists for charters in Boston alone.

Furthermore, a looming deficit as high as $50 million in the Boston district's $1 billion annual budget is also complicating the situation.

"The combination of all of it at the same time is really a lot to take in," said Kenny Jervis, a father of two students who attend district-run schools in Boston. He said district school parents fear a single enrollment system will divert attention from other important issues, while charter parents worry it will restrict choice.

Jervis has attended public meetings on the enrollment system and says that city and district leaders haven't clearly articulated how unified enrollment will benefit families.

"They say, 'It will be good.' You ask why, they say, 'Because.' It's like talking to your 6-year-old."

Resistance in Oakland

A plan to create a common-enrollment system in Oakland is also running into resistance from a parent group whose members fear it will spark an exodus from district-run schools to charters. Although not unexpected, the pushback in both cities baffles and frustrates city and district leaders.

Unified enrollment systems not only represent a hard-fought détente between two sectors often at odds, but they're designed to simplify increasingly complex schooling landscapes for parents.

Common-enrollment systems often include information meant to help parents compare schools and judge which ones are the best fits for their children. A single system is also intended to ease the burden for parents who would otherwise have to juggle multiple applications and deadlines.

Unified enrollment also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for charter schools to "cream" high-performing students and turn away those with special needs—something critics have long accused charters of doing in order to inflate their test scores, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis group at the University of Washington.

That's what sold Shannah Verón, the executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, even if it means charter schools will have to draw from the district's narrower assignment zones.

"It's hurtful when we hear that we are creaming, that we don't want to serve all students," she said. "There are some schools that are very eager to have more relationships with their surrounding communities."

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On the flip side, many parents are uncomfortable with a computer algorithm making the ultimate call on something as high stakes and personal as where to send their children to school, said Betheny Gross, a researcher at CRPE who has interviewed and surveyed hundreds of parents on this issue in other cities.

"They're no less arbitrary than bingo balls or lottery numbers being pulled, but somehow it feels different," she said. "... If it were my kid, I might feel kind of weird about it, too."

And for the parents who have the time and resources to manage multiple applications and deadlines, a common-enrollment system strips them of their advantage of getting their top choices.

Finally, for people opposed to, or even just wary of, the growth of charter schools, common-enrollment systems might represent a tacit acknowledgment from district and city leadership that charters are there to stay.

Vol. 35, Issue 21, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: February 17, 2016, as In Cities With Choice, Single-Enrollment Systems Hit Hurdles
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