The Common Enrollment Story in Oakland You Probably Missed

In 2016 Oakland Unified suffered through a bloody attempt to create a “common enrollment” process that placed all public schools; district and charter in a single application for admission.  I covered the arguments for and against a common application and the proposal’s burial.

What you probably didn’t know is that the charter schools themselves decided to go ahead and create their own common application.  So now a parent can apply to all but two of the East Bay’s charters through a single online application.   This is a huge step forward for parents who used to have to hustle to each individual school, figure out its process, and timing and hopefully meet it.

Charter school admissions can be a mess.  Shit, I have had a hard time navigating charter application processes in schools I helped start.  And have felt like kids I brought in were not treated equally.  And, as always, the more complicated the process the more it privileges the privileged.

In a notoriously independent and sometimes self- interested charter sector, it should be interesting to see how this plays out.   While the common application is good for parents—it may not be good for schools.

How did we get here?

I know there was a narrative of charter schools pushing OUSD to adopt common enrollment for district and charters, but that simply was not true.  As I argued many charters were ambivalent at best about it.  So it has been a pretty spectacular job of cat-herding to get all but two of the charter schools in the East bay to sign up for the charter school common application.

Common enrollment could threaten two pillars of charter schools; their independence, by giving up power over admissions, and their financial stability by changing the predictability of student enrollment.  So from just a selfish perspective of a single school, if you have strong enrollment already, adding this new wrinkle doesn’t help.

It may create more instability in your school as “your” parents sign up for multiple lotteries, or it may increase the number of families that accept multiple offers and don’t show up on the first day of school.

And if students don’t show up, funding will not follow, leading to budget/staffing reductions and  a cascade of negative effects.  These are real fears.  I sit on charter  boards, and believe me, we worry.

The system is built for gaming

I don’t blame parents for gaming the system, the system is built to be gamed.  Look at who participates in the open enrollment choice period, and who doesn’t, and who misses the initial enrollment period, left with options that other parents didn’t choose.  The system has gamed us into schools where almost every child is Black or Brown AND low income, and other schools are a 6% free and reduced lunch.

The issue is not with the parents it’s with the system.

But in the meantime the charter schools got together and put aside their fears,(gulp), and did something that really should be best for families.  And again I will just harp on the fact that the current way of doing charter admissions is a total mess.

Every school had its own application, most had different timelines and procedures, and I do think there were real issues of access.

Speaking with the folks behind the new common application it’s a thoughtful and community-centric roll out.  The application is online in multiple languages, they will be doing pop ups in the community, and are working with community organizations to get the word out.

These are huge steps forward, the old enrollment processes at charters comforted the comforted and afflicted the afflicted.  The more privileged among choosers generally could exercise more choices.

Next steps for the charter common application

These are our systems, and they should work towards our goals.  We can make schools more integrated, and the system more equitable.  Over time I would love to see this system evolve to better actually match families with schools on filters; a kind of, and I would love to see academic study of the data on who is choosing.  Who is getting into lotteries and who finishes the year, are there certain categories of students disproportionately leaving?

We could also do some real studies on kids who got into lotteries and who didn’t and what the outcomes on a range of measure are, creating a somewhat randomized experiment in terms of school effects.

The system could also help families make more socially productive choices (from my integrationist perspective).  Schools looking to recruit diverse families could enable push notifications to target families, or the system could match families with schools similar to their choices that are more diverse and suggest them.

The common application is a great step forward for families, even if it leaves the schools on shakier ground.  In a climate marked by self –interest, this is a refreshing change, albeit a scary one.


What do you think?

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