A new report from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice adds to the robust literature on school choice in New Orleans, shedding light on the ways in which the centralized enrollment system in the Crescent City has grown and evolved, as well as focusing on any potential disparate impacts to both enrollment and student achievement based on race.
When the education system was restarted following Katrina, city leaders were required by the state to institute an almost entirely charter school environment. While the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) still existed in name, the few schools under its control were run by charter management organizations (CMOs). The great majority of schools, also operated by various CMOs, were part of what was known as the Recovery School District (or RSD). Individual schools in both networks controlled their own application and enrollment processes, and parents applied directly to them. School staff were responsible for upholding laws regarding non-discrimination, and for holding lotteries when applications exceeded available seats. Non-network schools (charter and private) operated full or partial magnet programs with various selective criteria. However, enrollment gaming by schools was rife, and a lawsuit followed.
In an effort to make application easier and more transparent for families, in 2008, the RSD launched a centralized enrollment system for its schools, allowing parents to rank their choices among RSD options. Four years later, the RSD moved to an online system called OneApp, adding an algorithm that placed each applicant in a single seat based on families’ rankings, seat availability, and a set of school-determined student priorities. The OPSB joined OneApp the following year. Independent schools were invited but not required to join. Various policy changes were enacted over time to bring all public schools into the OneApp system, voluntarily or otherwise, and participation was universal by 2022.
Researchers Jane Arnold Lincove and Jon Valant exploit the incremental addition of New Orleans schools to OneApp—as well as the fact that selective-admission schools were allowed to keep their criteria in place after joining OneApp—to assess whether entry into centralized enrollment can be empirically associated with demographic shifts in the city’s public schools. They use restricted, student-level administrative data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) to aggregate data to the school-by-grade-by-year level. This includes all publicly-funded schools in New Orleans from 2007–08 through 2019–20.
The researchers measure the racial composition of each school or grade as the share of nonwhite students in LDOE’s fall enrollment counts. The percentage of Asian and Hispanic students in the data is very small—more than 95 percent of nonwhite students in the data identify as Black or multiracial (which the authors say likely includes one Black parent in most cases)—so while they are included in overall nonwhite data, they are excluded from subgroup analysis. The comparison, then, is a group of schools that had more than 15 percent White student enrollment prior to the 2012–13 school year—called “focus schools”—with the remaining schools whose student bodies were between 86 and 100 percent nonwhite prior to 2012–13.
We learn that the entry of schools into the centralized enrollment system was associated with a small but significant increase in Black and total nonwhite enrollment. Specifically, entering OneApp led to an increase of 0.7 percentage points in nonwhite enrollment per year in focus schools from their pre-OneApp mean of 60.4 percent—actually reversing pre-Katrina trends.
Effects were more pronounced at entry grades such as kindergarten and ninth (moving from middle to high school), with the former showing the strongest effects. Interestingly, analysts found no evidence of corresponding declines in White enrollment in these schools from either student exits or reduced demand among new families. Instead, focus schools increased their total enrollment after entering OneApp, allowing them to enroll more nonwhite students while largely retaining their already-enrolled White and nonwhite students. It seems likely from the specific grade level effects and the slow incremental boost in nonwhite enrollment that schools maximized seat availability for new students at entry grades.
Finally, various analyses of focus schools’ accountability scores, value-added test performance, student and teacher mobility, and student discipline rates showed insignificant or null effects of entering OneApp. That is, student outcomes across a range of measures did not change, even after several years of changing demographics in their schools. Robustness checks were made by running the analyses again after increasing the nonwhite percentage of focus schools to 25 percent and by running the analyses on individual focus schools with the largest student populations (which could have skewed the overall effects seen in earlier analyses). The results indicated minimal variation in outcomes.
The researchers are quick to note important limitations of their work, including a lack of generalizability to other contexts and that increasing racial integration in schools—even when desirable to expand opportunities—should not be deemed synonymous with achieving increased academic quality. What they do conclude, however, is that a centralized, near-universal school choice system like that in New Orleans likely increases transparency and reduces the enrollment barriers that families must navigate to find their best fit, including those based on racial composition of school buildings.
The OneApp system successfully opened more opportunities for Crescent City students of color in schools where they had been underrepresented before—likely due to residential assignment patterns—and these opportunities were acted upon without triggering an outmigration of White students or changing the academic outcomes in destination schools. These victories by school choice over archaic, address-based school assignment schemes are small but important. They should not be ignored.
SOURCE: Jane Arnold Lincove and Jon Valant, “How Has Centralized Enrollment Affected New Orleans Schools?” National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (December 2023).