All enrollment reforms are not created equal

School choice is both commonplace and increasing in America.

Families in cities all over the country actively shop for the right schools for their kids – charter schools, district-run magnet or theme schools, or, through the real estate market, traditional neighborhood schools.  The charter school movement continues to grow and districts are responding by intentionally developing more choices for families to access.

So, it should come as no surprise that school enrollment reform is becoming increasingly popular.

We have supported cities like Denver, New Orleans, Washington, DC and Camden to implement what we call “unified enrollment” systems.  Cities like Oakland and Boston have implemented “common applications” and places like Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles and others are debating their paths forward.   While both are enrollment systems, they are very different.  In fact, all enrollment reforms are not created equal.

Common application ≠ unified enrollment

More specifically, a common application used across schools is not a unified enrollment system.  While both reforms may be an improvement on the existing “wild west” of school choice, they have different characteristics and they attempt to solve different problems.  The table below lays out some key characteristics of these different enrollment reforms, both of which are being pursued inn different places across the country.

Source: Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
Source: Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Defining common applications and unified enrollment

Common applications – where all schools in a sector or city agree to use the same enrollment application form – make it somewhat easier for families to participate in school choice.  But a common application falls far short in addressing underlying concerns with:  Fairness of assignments (some families can horde assignments or seats, while other families go without any), schools “creaming” or selecting students, families “gaming” the system by currying favor with enrollment offices, or eliminating the fall semester “waitlist shuffle” that makes thoughtful school budgeting and planning extremely difficult.

Let’s strive to bring sectors together to voluntarily improve enrollment practices in the most equitable way possible: truly unified enrollment.

Unified enrollment is characterized by families using a single application form to rank their preferred schools, all applicants participating in a single lottery (described in detail here), and families being offered a single school assignment.  Unified enrollment is easier to navigate for families and addresses the major equity, fairness, and efficiency concerns mentioned above.  In summary:

  • Families have fairer access to schools
  • Schools have a level playing field as they compete to educate students
  • School administrators have more predictable student rosters from which to plan from.

True unified enrollment also provides policymakers and school operators with clear and unambiguous data on the types of schools and academic programs that communities want, so that they might more readily respond to those demands.

So, in discussing enrollment reforms, let’s be clear about the differences. More importantly, let’s strive to bring sectors together to voluntarily improve enrollment practices in the most equitable way possible:  truly unified enrollment.