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November 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 3

Does Common Enrollment Work?

Common enrollment systems level the playing field, but are they right for every district?

LeadershipEquity
Does Common Enrollment Work? thumbnail
Credit: Steve Debenport
It was the type of headline no district leaders want to read about their schools: "Where Black Lives Don't Matter."
In an editorial last fall, The Wall Street Journal's William McGurn (2015) scorched New York City's public schools for perpetuating a system of racial inequality. He wrote that
nowhere in New York is the divide between haves and have-nots—or between black and white—as stark as it is on equal access to a decent education.
Pointing to schools he called "failure factories," McGurn noted that New York's worst schools house almost a half million students, 90 percent of them students of color. But it's not only New York schools that have come under such criticism. Just a week before, New York Times editorial writer Eduardo Porter (2015) implicated public schools in general:
Well-funded schools where the children of the affluent can play and learn with each other are cordoned off from the shabbier schools teaching the poor, who are still disproportionally from black or Hispanic backgrounds.
It's a challenge school leaders and policymakers have attempted to fix for years. First they tried forced busing, school financing models, and other interventions, but still the problem persisted. Then came public school choice—magnet schools, open enrollment, and charter schools. All were designed, in theory, to provide more quality opportunities for families "cordoned off" by economic and geographic circumstances. In practice, however, such benefits of choice have often remained elusive. School leaders have resisted choice. Plus, the supply of quality schools has been slow to develop and the process by which families must attempt to choose and enroll in schools has often been prohibitive.
The school districts of Denver and New Orleans offer numerous choice options, but officials in both cities became frustrated by the inequities of a status-quo approach. In 2012, each district implemented a common enrollment system (CES) designed to level the choice and enrollment playing field for all families, particularly with regard to charter schools and high-performing district-run schools. In 2014, Newark, New Jersey, followed suit.
After several years in operation, is the CES model closing the gaps in access to quality education? Should more districts invest the resources necessary to implement it for their schools? Early studies (ours included) suggest CESs are achieving some, but not all, of their intended outcomes.
Our involvement with common enrollment systems has been purely as researchers. Drawing on our analyses and those of others, we describe here how CESs work and what the results have shown thus far.

What Are Common Enrollment Systems?

As implemented in Denver, New Orleans, and Newark, a CES acts as a centralized enrollment process for all district-run and charter schools citywide. The presence of charters is a defining feature of these new common enrollment systems; some cities (New York and Boston, for example) use common enrollment for their district-run schools but exclude charters, enflaming continued criticism.
In the three CES cities, instead of filling out different enrollment forms for each school, parents complete one form for almost all of the city's public schools—charters included—and are paired with schools by a centralized matching process.
During the spring application period, parents rank schools in order of preference that they would like their children to attend in the fall. Parents are able to keep their children in their current school if they prefer. In that case, families are not required to apply again until they move to a different school. For those choosing new schools, a statistical algorithm matches children to schools on the basis of their preferences, school-based admission requirements (for instance, if a school for the arts requires an audition, the algorithm only matches applicants who have completed the audition), the space available at the school, and the school's priorities (such as keeping siblings together). Other factors, such as academic performance, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, are not part of the algorithm. The goal of CESs is to make choosing a school less stressful and more transparent for families.

Overcoming Barriers

For district leaders, common enrollment systems engender interest for at least two reasons. These systems can be used as a tool to build portfolio school districts in which leaders assemble a stable of schools by aggressively closing unproductive schools, opening promising new schools operated by the best providers (including charter schools), and collecting and publicly sharing performance data as part of a strategy of continuous improvement.
Leaders are also drawn to CESs because centralizing enrollment levels the playing field and reduces barriers for parents seeking the best options for their children. Under traditional enrollment practices, two types of barriers can lead to inequitable access to schools. The first is the burden on parents to navigate a complicated landscape. Parents must invest significant time in the process by visiting different schools, completing different applications, and monitoring the various options once they are assigned to a waiting list. Such circumstances typically favor parents with strong social networks and resources to navigate this process.
The second barrier is access to information, which has been one of the primary criticisms of school choice for years. Some families may not realize they have the option to choose a school other than their neighborhood assignment, or they may make choices entirely on the basis of marketing or word-of-mouth from other under-informed parents, rather than school performance or descriptions of curricular offerings. Both of these barriers can lead to inequitable access to schools and enrollment patterns segregated by race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status.
CESs are designed to help families overcome these barriers. The single application and algorithmic matching addresses the burden of applying and choosing schools. To facilitate informed choice, CES districts produce standardized information about all schools, including performance ratings, and make it widely available in multiple languages and formats. By providing standard and accessible information to all parents, districts endeavor to ensure those choices are not biased by informational inequities.

What's Working

To date, results indicate that common enrollment systems are meeting the goal of consistency and fair play. As one New Orleans principal described to a team of researchers,
[It] just levels the playing field for parents, and it also gives them all of this information up front, so they're not chasing you [the principal] down trying to figure out what schools are available … So I think it makes the parents' and the kids' lives a lot easier. … The second thing is that it forces schools to all play by rules (Gross, DeArmond, & Denice, 2015).
Parents also appear to be using better information when making choices. Interviews and focus groups with parents in Denver and New Orleans revealed that parents were aware of the guides produced by the district; most parents reported accessing the information (Gross, DeArmond, & Denice, 2015). Moreover, another study in Denver found that traditionally disadvantaged groups (low-income and minority parents) were disproportionately overrepresented among users of informational sources provided by the district (Yettick, 2016).
Finally, participation and match rates are high. In Denver, more than 70 percent of kindergartners and middle schoolers and more than 60 percent of freshmen entering high school submitted an application in the first several years of operation. As for matches, in New Orleans in 2015–2016, 54 percent of families received their first-choice school, and 75 percent were matched to one of their top three choices. In Denver, about 80 percent of students were matched to one of their five choices across all grade levels, and 70 to 80 percent of students in the transition grades of kindergarten, 6th grade, and 9th grade were matched to their first choice (Gross, DeArmond, & Denice, 2015; Gross & Denice, 2015).

What's Not Working

Beneath the high participation rates, however, disparities still persist. For instance, in 2014, Hispanic students (71 percent) and black students (63 percent) had lower participation rates in Denver's CES than white students did (85 percent) (Gross & Denice, 2015).
Parents also reported wanting more fulsome details about schools. Specifically, parents valued knowing a school's performance level, but they also needed to weigh the school's location, curricular and non-curricular offerings, and overall environment in their decision.
Indeed, location has proven particularly troublesome. Historically, one of the greatest barriers to choice for many families, specifically those of limited means, has been school location and transportation. Offering school choice to those who cannot get to the schools they want means no choice at all. Apart from providing transportation to such families, common enrollment systems do little to address this barrier.
Finally, informational barriers are not reduced to zero. Families new to CES cities, those with children just reaching school age, and parents lacking access to informed social networks may not understand the process and importance of the information provided. One study of Denver's CES found that how well parents understood the matching system was related to race and ethnicity, income, student academic performance, and status as English language learners or students with special needs (Gross & Denice, 2015). Such misunderstandings often manifested in parents' futile attempts to "game the system." For example, even though parents could list five schools, some listed fewer than five under the assumption that doing so would increase the likelihood of being matched to those schools. Unfortunately, such gamesmanship often hurt their chances of being matched to the schools they wanted (Gross, DeArmond, & Denice, 2015).

What Do Parents Choose?

Of particular interest has been the choices that parents make. Our recent study of Denver's common enrollment system found that black and Hispanic families were significantly more likely than white families to choose a charter school over a district-run school. So, too, were students for whom English is a second language and those who were previously enrolled in charters. Families less inclined to choose charters were those with children with disabilities (Winters, Carpenter, & Clayton, 2015).
In New Orleans, parents' choices were less about charters and non-charters and more about what schools offered. Despite the provision of school performance information and general parental expressions of greater preference for academically stronger schools, academics were often over-shadowed by extracurricular preferences (such as football and band) among low-income families, particularly at the high school level (Harris & Larsen, 2015). The result is a greater concentration of low-income families in schools that may not offer the strongest academic performance.

Advice for District Leaders

In the first several years of operation, common enrollment systems have proven generally effective. School district leaders interested in addressing application and access inequities would benefit from exploring a common enrollment system as an option for their schools.
Like any educational intervention, however, CESs are not perfectly efficacious and depend on the commitment to, and the quality of, their implementation. At the fundamental level, district leaders will need to be committed to choice, differences in schools, and creating a portfolio district.
Cities that have implemented CESs have come to embrace charters—despite past animosity—as a vehicle to satisfy parents' choices and to increase the capacity of new high-quality schools, particularly in environments of lean district resources.
Part of embracing charters also means allowing for substantive differences in schools, such as curricular specialties. In Denver, for example, charter schools focus on math and science, particular vocations, at-risk populations, and a number of other domains and populations. Either explicitly or implicitly, leaders in CES districts have acknowledged that traditional public schools cannot be all things to all people. Including charters in CESs more effectively serves the diverse needs of district patrons. This is, in fact, an essential element of building a portfolio school district.
But so, too, is ensuring quality. Districts interested in implementing effective common enrollment systems will need to commit to the difficult and often contentious task of aggressively closing or improving struggling schools, taking a more active role in their charter school authorizer status, and creating new high-performing schools, particularly in underserved areas.
In addition to considering these fundamental elements, district leaders interested in CESs will need to further reduce barriers to choice, such as safe and reliable transportation, that current implementations have not yet addressed. Also, district leaders will need to understand that parents will choose schools that may seem like the "wrong" choice. Families may prioritize schools that are not academic superstars but instead offer programs or environments that serve family needs or interests that are not primarily academic. Of course, holding all schools to a certain minimum level of quality would make for greater comfort with such choices.
Without a commitment to these elements, the implementation of a common enrollment system will fail to achieve its primary purposes. A case in point is New York City, where failing schools persist and the CES excludes charter schools, many of which provide superior options for low-income and minority families. The result is angry parents who see stark, inequitable differences in the educational opportunities for their children—which in turn creates the glaring headlines no school leader wants to see.
References

Gross, B., DeArmond, M., & Denice, P. (2015). Common enrollment, parents, and school choice: Early evidence from Denver and New Orleans. Bothell, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Gross, B., & Denice, P. (2015). An evaluation of Denver's SchoolChoice process, 2012–2014. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Harris, D. N., & Larsen, M. F. (2015). What schools do families want (and why)? New Orleans, LA: Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

McGurn, W. (2015, September 28). Where black lives don't matter. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from www.wsj.com/articles/where-black-lives-dont-matter-1443485540.

Porter, E. (2015, September 23). Education gap between rich and poor is growing wider. New York Times, p. B1.

Winters, M., Carpenter, D. M., & Clayton, G. (2015). Choices, choices: Determining significant predictors of choosing a school and choosing charters in Denver's universal school enrollment program. Colorado Springs, CO: Center for the Study of Government and the Individual.

Yettick, H. (2016). Information is bliss: Information use by school choice participants in Denver. Urban Education, 51(8), 859–890.

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