Steal This Story: How School Choice Can Become Ridiculous – & What To Do About It

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On Wednesday, a Cincinnati parent who works at a startup software company posted Waiting For Kindergarten, the story of the 16 days he spent camping out in a tent to get a spot in the right kindergarten for one of his children.

He wasn’t alone. Lots of parents weren’t comfortable with the local neighborhood schools that their children would be assigned to automatically, a phenomenon one writer called polite racism but others would describe simply as white flight. Eventually, tents front of Fairview-Clifton German Language School, a magnet program created in 197, “filled the entire hillside each night.” 

The Cincinnati  situation isn’t common any more. “Most school districts have a formal magnet school application process that often utilize randomized lotteries when their magnet schools have waiting lists,” according to the Magnet School Association‘s John Laughner. But it isn’t unique, either. In many places, magnet programs like this one — originally designed to promote racial integration — have become more competitive, and less diverse.  Charter schools add to the menu of options.  While overnight campouts are unusual, old-school tools like required meetings, paper applications, and a dazzling array of deadlines are still pretty common.

It’s enough to give “choice” a bad name, notes Neil Dorosin, an expert in selection and matching systems: “Deprived of access to an organized process, many families despair over the complexity and difficulty of accessing 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.”

One approach to addressing the obvious problems with these kinds of situations is something called Unified Enrollment, in which all schools — district, magnet, and charter — operate under one timeline, one form (or website) and one lottery. Basically, it gives everyone the same chance to apply to and get into popular schools, regardless of ability to fill out different application forms, attend various meetings, or — in extreme cases — camp out for more than two weeks.

A handful of cities already have it: Denver, DC, Newark, and New Orleans. NYC has it for high schools only. A handful more like Baltimore and LA have streamlined their process but stopped short of a fully unified system.  I’m told it’s being contemplated in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Oakland, Camden, and Detroit.

The benefits of a streamlined system are obvious. Before it created the unified system in 2011, there were 62 different forms and application deadlines in Denver. Now there’s one form, one date, and parents rank their preferences so that schools don’t have to go through an extended waiting period while parents figure out what they’re going to do. 

However, getting everyone — charters, magnets, selective enrollment schools — to use the same timeline, application form, and all the rest is no easy task. Chicago and Philly both tried and failed to get it done, blocked by a variety of factors including angry parents and reluctant charters.

Read a blog post about it from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation here. A think tank took a look at how it was working in Denver and New Orleans here. Thanks to MSDF’s Joe Siedlecki for the information. Read more about the NYC process in this 2014 NYT article.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.