School Choice & Charters

Detroit Needs Universal Enrollment for District and Charter Schools, Report Says

By Arianna Prothero — November 26, 2014 2 min read
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Creating a one-stop shop where Detroit families can enroll in both district and charter schools would help families navigate what has become a very complex school-choice system. That’s at the heart of a series of recommendations made in a report commissioned by Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit devoted to improving the city’s schools.

Only a handful of cities have what is often called a common- or universal-enrollment system, which basically establishes one place, one application and one deadline to apply for all district and charter schools. In addition to a common-enrollment system for Detroit, the report recommends holding annual school fairs and creating a single guidebook to all the city’s schools that contains information on school performance.

All those ideas are aimed at making it easier for families to choose schools and choose them well. Detroit’s current school selection process is incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons,the report argues, such as unmitigated competition:

The cutthroat competition to enroll kids is undermining efforts to best serve families and to improve school quality across the system of public schools. Schools have the incentive to enroll kids using any means necessary, including using enrollment gifts and other elaborate marketing schemes, and the risk is that families are choosing schools based on marketing, not on quality, or even fit."

Complicating the landscape is that Detroit’s school district is under emergency management and saddled with about a $127 million deficit. The district’s lowest-performing schools have been absorbed by a statewide recovery district, and all the while the charter sector has rapidly grown. Neither sector can claim stellar academic performance.

Although the report commissioned by Excellent Schools Detroit has been received favorably by some, the president of Detroit’s Board of Education told The Detroit News that its main recommendation—a common-enrollment system—would make “guinea pigs of our students.”


However, if Detroit were to implement a common-enrollment system, it would join a very small and fairly new group of cities that have already done so. Denver launched such a system in 2012, the New Orleans Recovery School District also created its program in 2012, with Orleans Parish School Board schools joining in 2013. Newark, N.J., and the District of Columbia implemented their programs this year.

A policy brief by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education looks at the oldest two models in Denver and New Orleans. It says creating a common-enrollment system is a step in the right direction, but parents still need easy access to data as well as high-quality schools to choose from.

Related: Charters Adopt Common Application Systems

Related: Problems in Mich. Charter School Sector: Can They Happen in Other States?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.