The Elephant in the Classroom – School Choice Exists. We Just Manage it Poorly.

For all the political rancor the phrase “school choice” tends to generate, the practice is already commonplace in America. Families in cities all over the country actively shop for the right schools – charter schools, district-run magnet or other selective enrollment schools, traditional district schools open to transfer students, even non-public schools. But most families do so in the absence of a centrally organized, healthy choice process.

Deprived of access to an organized process, many families despair over the complexity and difficulty of accessing schools. Those that have the resources and the time can apply for slots in multiple schools, and then must accept the injustice when a friend or neighbor’s child is offered seats at several schools while their own child receives no offers. Those that can’t find the time or the resources to participate are administratively assigned, typically to the lowest performing schools.

The situation is also hard on schools and school administrators. In the absence of a centrally organized process, they often experience a great degree of registration instability – an issue that complicates effective planning for the year ahead, and typically results in extensive waitlists that schools use even into the following school year.

The Costs of Complexity

For families, cities and those of us working on a national level to devise school improvement strategies, the problems posed by these decentralized enrollment systems lead to unacceptable sacrifices.

First and foremost, complex, work-intensive systems of choice alienate families and discourage participation – particularly among those most at-risk of being failed by the school system to begin with. They also threaten to cripple some of our nation’s most promising school reform initiatives – in particular those based on a portfolio strategy  – first, by obscuring valuable data about demand for particular schools, and second, by making accountability and transparency all but impossible to ensure.

The good news is that in several cities, including New York, New Orleans and Denver, among others, administrators have already implemented – or are in the process of implementing – centralized school choice systems. These systems maximize parent choice while also guaranteeing:

  • Streamlined and easy participation with equitable access to quality schools
  • Reliable and robust data on community demand for schools
  • Enhanced transparency into access to ensure accountability for results

Participation: Making It Easier for All Families

Centralized enrollment processes address one primary problem posed by multiple enrollment processes: Participation. In New York City, for example, just 66 percent of families participated in the city’s high school choice process in 2002 before the city overhauled the enrollment system. The overwhelming majority of non-participants were families who lived in the city’s poorest areas. In 2003, the New York City Department of Education launched a centralized high school choice process. That year, over 90 percent of families participated. Annual participation has since risen to almost 100 percent.

Demand: Give the People What They Want

Centralized enrollment processes also help administrators understand families’ preferences  – – which schools they want the most, which schools are lower on their preference lists, and which ones do not appear at all..

In most cities, families express their school preferences by applying to individual schools via the individual processes at those schools.  These decentralized processes leave administrators unable to gather reliable data about either the complete list of schools selected by each family, or about the order of their preferences. This, in turn, leaves them unable to do any meaningful analysis regarding the nature of demand – one of the most important tools needed to make sound decisions about how to best serve the community. (This state of affairs is particularly crippling for portfolio districts, which operate on the principle that parents must be able to choose among desirable, high-quality public schools of all types.)

Bringing all public schools into one centralized enrollment process solves this problem. In Denver’s SchoolChoice process, for example, one application enables families to select from all public schools. That’s right – if you go to public school in Denver, you use the single SchoolChoice application to gain access. A family might select a district-run magnet school as their 1st choice, a charter school as their 2nd choice, another charter as their 3rd choice, a district school as their 4th choice, and so on.

Denver’s centralized application process does more than help administrators make the best possible assignment for this family. It also tells them something about the relative demand for the various types of schools available.

Almost 23,000 students participated in SchoolChoice in 2012. Taken collectively, their applications contain data that is vital to Denver administrators in understanding the demand for schools, and therefore in making thoughtful, data-driven decisions about the mix of schools within their portfolio.

Transparency = Accountability + The Ability to Improve

When we look at public school enrollment in most of our cities, we see that only a handful of schools enroll the majority of our most challenging student populations. Many public schools, including both district-run and charter schools, enroll fewer than expected numbers of these students despite published open-enrollment policies.

This is not to suggest bad intentions on the part of schools. However, the simple appearance of impropriety allows critics to charge that successful charter schools are unfairly “creaming” top students. Centralizing school choice ensures the faithful implementation of open-enrollment policy and eliminates the “creaming” argument, since individual schools will no longer run their own admissions lotteries.

New Orleans offers an instructive case study on how transparency will play out in practice: The Recovery School District of New Orleans implemented OneApp, a centralized enrollment system this year for all of its 66 schools. At least six of the Orleans Parish School Board’s 18 schools will join OneApp in 2013.

OneApp will ensure that students are assigned to public schools in a manner that is transparent and equitable – which will, by extension, give administrators an unprecedented level of comfort in closing low performing schools. Able to rule out bias in admissions as a factor in performance, they’ll have an unprecedented level of comfort in closing weak schools and in identifying high-performing schools to replicate.  Most importantly, New Orleans families will face far fewer challenges in applying to and enrolling in schools of choice.

Enrollment and choice reforms in New Orleans, Denver, and New York have great value in and of themselves. But these reforms are also an integral facet of the portfolio movement in those districts. Like any large-scale change, implementation took a great deal of planning and a coordinated effort among district leaders, educators and community members. It’s time for all districts seriously interested in comprehensive improvement to learn from their examples, seriously consider the portfolio strategy, and address the challenges of enrollment and choice reform.

Read our series on portfolio school districts.

Neil Dorosin is the executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice. He was the director of high school admissions operations at the New York City Department of Education from 2004 – 2007. He led a team in overhauling the choice system and then managed NYC DOE’s high school choice process for four years. He began his career in public education as a Teach For America corps member in the South Bronx in 1994.