Bad Arguments Against Common Enrollment Part 2


The debate over creating a common enrollment system for parents that includes charters and district schools rages on.  I attended the recent OUSD engagement session and the Oakland Post also ran an op-ed critiquing common enrollment by Rosie Torres, “’Common Enrollment’ is a Misfit for the Problems that Plague Oakland Schools Retaining and improving principals and teachers should be a top priority”.

We have been following this pretty closely with pros and cons of common enrollment.  And we have some new issues with the latest arguments against reforming the enrollment system and leave with one big philosophical question that I think cuts to the heart of the matter.

But first two statistics that frame my thinking on this issue;

  1. Oakland has the most income segregated schools in the country of large districts- Check the stats. Low income families are 18 times more likely to be in the lowest performing schools.  This IS the result of our current enrollment policies and segregated housing.
  2. 73% of the public wants a unified enrollment process that includes all school options according to the only survey I have seen

The latest arguments against reforming OUSD’s enrollment system

  1. OUSD can’t walk and chew gum at the same time—OK I am oversimplifying—but basically this says that until Oakland fixes special education and staff retention that it can’t handle enrollment reform. Retention and special education issues have been with Oakland forever, and while I expect we can do better, I don’t think they will ever be “solved”.   And all of these are long term issues that will require repeated iterations, and novel solutions.  And yeah, most districts can work on more than 2 challenges at a time, so if we can’t, we need some new representatives and leaders in the District.
  2. “Outsiders” are leading the change and they aren’t connected to community– Yeah, some of the consultants are experts who have done similar projects in other cities. Outside of that I am not sure who they are referring to.  Seems like a veiled reference to outside philanthropy funding the outreach and some of the initial implementation.  And I actually do think that philanthropy can distort this process—which is why OUSD is holding these engagement sessions and creating a local oversight board—further—any change needs to be voted on by our elected representatives on the school board—so the decision and it’s details is with locals.
  3. Common enrollment has had problems in other localities– Common enrollment is not perfect, and won’t solve all ills in a fell swoop, but is seen as an improvement. In NOLA I heard parents criticize it, but they were far more critical of the free for all that happened prior to the system, which was opaque and seemingly relied on relationships.  Folks should talk to the parent advocates there; the Urban league, and the Micah Project, there are continuing issues, but I think the balance of opinion would favor common enrollment over what they had.  Just like the 73% of Oakland parents.
  4. Families don’t trust the algorithm that matches them and savvy parents can game the system– The algorithm is up to us, and the degree of transparency can be written into policy, so if we want a new matching process we should create that. And our most savvy parents work the current system to their advantage now (and I don’t blame them), creating and perpetuating the vast inequalities that we see in Oakland.  And as described last night—the current enrollment algorithm is some dude shuffling pieces of paper at one Lake Merritt site.  Pretty sure that is NOT the most equitable or transparent way to get it done and pretty sure most parents would agree.

Comparing a hypothetical common enrollment system to perfection will always have it coming up short.  The relevant comparison is to look at what is happening now and what we can do to improve it.

The Heart of the Matter

So what is really going on here?  I think it’s actually a philosophical difference being covered by a dance of the seven veils.  And the heart of the matter is found in the last lines of the Post op-ed.  “(W)ithout all the answers provided to the board about whether common enrollment will lead to reduced enrollment in OUSD…I cannot support such an overhaul.”

So it’s really about the potential for common enrollment to reduce district enrollment, because presumably more families would choose charter schools if they had better access to them.  So what is the role of the District?  To help families to find the best schools for their children and get the best education they can—or to protect itself?

If families and children had more equitable and better outcomes and “the district” somehow suffered, I guess that is a reasonable tradeoff from my viewpoint.  But maybe that puts me in the minority, though if you talk to parents, and particularly underserved parents, I doubt it.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Bad Arguments Against Common Enrollment Part 2

  1. Yes, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, but people also aren’t going to want to pursue change if that change incorporates a policy that they have an underlying philosophical disagreement with (e.g., charter schools). I hope that the public engagement session led to some new and creative ideas that show a way forward that brings as many people as possible on board.

    I think you are right about the heart of the matter, but I also think it just leads to more questions. For instance, is the purpose of the better data that we’d get from common enrollment to identify and shut down schools that are proven by a more robust enrollment choice system to be particularly and persistently unpopular? If yes, then what are the criteria, and what level of volatility (i.e., schools opening + closing) in our school communities are we comfortable with? If no, then how are we going to afford to support and sustain schools with small enrollments in a way that doesn’t harm kids in them who are “left behind”?

    I think it is the sense of disagreement about the answers to some of these other questions that is fueling the disagreement about common enrollment.

    1. I think you are on point, but to me if the heart of the matter is the questions in your 2nd paragraph, which are all very valid questions– then we as a community should be really talking through those issues and making some deliberative decisions (which may be hard decisions). But yeah for those worried about charters I dont think it’s fair to use this data a smokescreen to close schools unless that is an agreed upon outcome ahead of time. But let’s have those debates and make some public decisions about the direction of the district. Policy is best made in the sunlight, and I think we are kind of saying one thing in the public debate and actually talking about another.

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