In 2012, Denver and New Orleans became the first two cities in the country to utilize a common enrollment system that included both district-run and charter schools. A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) takes a look at the benefits, limitations, and implications of these common enrollment systems. Both cities are widely regarded as leaders in developing well-functioning school marketplaces; for example, a recent Brookings institution report awarded New Orleans top marks in its “education choice and competition index” (Denver was rated sixth-best out of more than one hundred metropolitan areas).
In both cities, the enrollment systems were designed to make choosing a school a clearer and fairer process for all families. They employ a single application with a single deadline that parents use to apply for any and all schools within the city. But the systems themselves are different: In New Orleans, students have no assigned school; instead, every family must use the OneApp to apply for schools. In Denver, however, choice is voluntary—students receive a default assignment, but the SchoolChoice application allows families (if they want) to apply to any public school in the city.
Despite these differences, both Denver’s and New Orleans’s common enrollment systems have demonstrated similar benefits, according to the authors. The enrollment and the matching process have become more fair, transparent, and consistent. Families choose schools more effectively and confidently, armed with information via school fairs, resources centers, and parent guides (which use common metrics to communicate school performance). And school leaders—thanks to common enrollment data that doubles as feedback—have formulated a clearer picture of the kinds of schools parents want.
The authors also point out a few areas in which the systems in Denver and New Orleans can improve. They include parents wanting more detailed and personalized information; misunderstanding of the school matching process (which, in some cases, inadvertently led to a reduced chance of finding a desirable match); and the troubling fact that in Denver, where participation is a choice, minority and low-income families are less likely to participate than white and affluent families (the authors note that while comparing choice participation rates is difficult, gaps in participation existed before the introduction of the common enrollment system).
The biggest area for improvement, however, has little to do with the original purpose of common enrollment systems: While the application and enrollment process has gotten simpler, parents in both cities say that there aren’t enough high-quality schools to choose from. Indeed, the researchers point out that “demand is heavily concentrated in a handful of schools.” Thus, although education leaders in New Orleans and Denver are working to improve already-promising common enrollment systems, those systems will remain severely limited until both cities increase the number of high-quality schools/seats available to their families. Nevertheless, kudos to both cities for devising a common enrollment system that includes both district and charter schools. Their example is one that Cleveland is already following; in September, the Transformation Alliance received a grant to develop a universal enrollment system.
SOURCE: Betheny Gross, Michael DeArmond, Patrick Denice, “Common Enrollment, Parents, and School Choice: Early Evidence from Denver and New Orleans,” Center on Reinventing Public Education (May 2015).