Charter schools offer a lifeline to parents who can’t afford to pay private tuition or move to a better neighborhood. The rapid expansion of charters has done more to spread high quality education in America’s cities than perhaps any other modern reform. And yet, the way charters enroll students could be improved. Several cities have recently adopted a simple reform that has increased access to charter schools among disadvantaged parents.
In most cities, when the number of applicants to a charter exceeds the number of seats available, enrollment offers are determined randomly. The process ensures that all applicants have an equal chance of getting in. But in reality, some parents face greater barriers than others. Parents must first know that charter schools exist and that their kids are eligible to attend them. Not all do. Even parents who are aware of charter schools may not appreciate that getting in to one requires more than the traditional registration process. There are deadlines for turning in application materials that often differ from school to school. Navigating all this takes time and energy that can be difficult for poor families to muster. A recent survey conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that anywhere from a quarter to a third of parents had trouble determining whether their children were eligible to attend a particular charter school. Similarly large proportions of parents said that they had difficulty with application deadlines and paperwork. These troubles were especially pronounced for parents with low levels of education and parents of children with special needs.
Several cities have adopted a new system to enroll students in both charter and district schools that couples fair lotteries with an inclusive application process. Under so-called “common enrollment,” parents turn in a single form listing in order the schools that they would like their child to attend. Each student is then given a randomly generated lottery number and an algorithm then matches students to school seats according to availability and the family’s stated preference. This process is based on the efficient matching strategies for which Alvin Roth won the Nobel Prize in economics. A similar process is used to assign medical students to residencies and match those seeking kidney transplants to donors.
Common enrollment by this design is not entirely new. New York City uses such a system to assign students to district high schools. Survey evidence presented by CRPE shows that the most disadvantaged parents find the common-enrollment process much easier to navigate than the school-based lottery system. My own research shows that the adoption of a common-enrollment system in Denver dramatically increased the proportion of low-income students and non-English proficient students entering charter schools in kindergarten.
Common-enrollment systems also produce vastly improved information about parental perceptions of school quality. Currently, districts can rate schools based on test scores or they can ask for parent feedback. They otherwise have little reliable information about what parents truly think. A common-enrollment system can help policymakers understand how parents view particular schools. In Newark, New Jersey, which employs such a system, half of all K-8 applicants listed North Star Academy Charter School as a preference, and 40 percent listed TEAM Charter Schools (affiliated with the popular KIPP network). The district reported that each of the Top Seven options listed by Newark parents were charter schools. That’s powerful data showing just how much local parents value charters.
Many charter school supporters remain wary of embracing common enrollment. The most common concern is that a central bureaucracy can’t be trusted to execute the common-enrollment process fairly, accurately, and on time. Many charter school operators entered the sector precisely because they didn’t trust the central administration to handle basic schooling functions correctly. Delays or mistakes in the process would be particularly troublesome for charter schools, which rely on their enrollments for revenue.
Not all has gone smoothly where common enrollment has been tried. But for the most part, common enrollment has been conducted competently and on-time. Cities like New York and Boston only need to expand their current common-enrollment systems for district schools to include charter schools. In other cases, outside consultants with experience implementing these programs can help to ensure that the process is adopted smoothly. Third-party auditing can easily check that matches are administered fairly.
Some charter school leaders that I have spoken with are skeptical of the sameness between charter and district schools implied by a common application system. Charters that value their autonomy are wary of ceding any control to the central district. Could a common-enrollment system become the Trojan Horse that opens the door to greater regulation of charters, and eventually makes them indistinguishable from regular district schools? It’s doubtful. In fact, it isn’t obvious that a common-enrollment system opens any meaningful regulatory doors at all. Charter schools operate autonomously, but even under the current system, charters aren’t supposed to have a say in who applies or is offered a seat. Adopting a common-enrollment system doesn’t make a single additional student eligible for admission or change the fact that applicants are randomly assigned to seats. It just changes who collects the application forms.
That charter schools are public schools often gets lost in the heated debate over education reform. While they aren’t held to some of the byzantine operational rules imposed by the central system on traditional district schools, charters should be thought of as one schooling option among several offered by the government to best serve the community’s needs. A common-enrollment process is consistent with that vision for urban education reform.
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