Valid Critiques of Common Enrollment

Last week we broke down some of the crap arguments against common enrollment flying around Oakland. This week we address some real ones, and the need to make any system work for underserved families.

Having one system where families can review school programs and quality, rank their choices and have a match created makes a lot of sense.  Families in Oakland have long complained about the current enrollment process, and the decentralized nature of charter schools admissions, which created a system that favored the more privileged.  However, creating a common enrollment system is only the start of solving the problem and for this system to really work for families we need to understand some potential pitfalls and address them.

I spent some time in New Orleans listening and talking to parents about their experience with ONEAPP, the common application there and also a recent blog School Choice Isn’t Real if Families Don’t Get Help, by Tim Daly covered this issue.  Some themes emerged that I think are valid critiques and areas that need to addressed.

  • Choice processes themselves can be overly complex, or opaque– Families need a clear sense of the process itself and expectations. In NOLA, year 1, a decision was made (with the best intentions) to automatically match  families who would be unassigned with the highest rated local school, even if it wasn’t listed by the family.  A backlash ensued and families complained that, “they assign you schools you don’t apply for.”  And the District subsequently removed this automatic matching process. I also spoke to a parent who lamented that choosing kindergarten had become like choosing college.  While in some ways I like the idea of folks investing a lot of research into K choice, that is a culture change that will take time.
  • The community (or communities) need to be central in development and dissemination of information– NOLA used the Urban League and other local organizations to set up community based enrollment centers. Particularly for underserved families, we need to get out into the community where they are and meet them where they are comfortable to get them engaged.
  • Even with common systems sorting out school quality can be difficult– California’s system of measuring school quality is under review, and the District is just implementing its new balanced scorecard. Given the newness of testing, and accountability, it may be difficult in some cases to judge school quality.  We need parent friendly measures that look not just at proficiency, but student growth and subgroup growth, as well as good information around school culture.
  • Choice without realistic quality options seems fraudulent– There are not enough quality seats for families in Oakland, so some families will not be matched with high quality choices because there are not enough quality options. In NOLA, they did close low performing schools, and the overall school quality ratings increased over time, but there still are not enough options, particularly in some neighborhoods.  And I think from a feel perspective, it is worse to be offered school choices—when you actually have none—than it is to just be assigned to a school.
  • Some families will miss deadlines, what happens to them– roughly a third of families in NOLA missed the initial application deadline for common enrollment- they do a second round, but families in that round have very few strong options—as all those seats filled in the first round. Families who missed the first round tend to be more disadvantaged, so this has the unintended effect of further disadvantaging them.
  • There are practical barriers to choice that need to be overcome– Our blog has covered the transportation challenges of Oakland families before—with many students spending hours in transit each day. Our most geographically isolated areas (West Oakland) tend to have the fewest quality options.  And so, again, if we don’t help with transportation, students further away from quality options will be further disadvantaged.

There are real challenges to common enrollment systems, and the way they are designed and implemented.  This isn’t to say don’t do it.

Our current system officially sucks, and has shown to be incredibly inequitable, allocating quality seats mostly on where families can afford to live, with unfortunate and predictable results.

The system obviously works for some (more privileged) families and compounds disadvantages for others.  If that’s what we really want in the schools, fine.  But if we view the schools as an equalizer and not just one more tilted playing field, we need to make changes and heed the lessons of those before us, with an ear always listening to our most underserved families and assuring they have a literal and figurative spot at the table.



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