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School Choice

Finally, Denver Gets Its Due: The Top Choice in School Choice

Someone finally got it right on who’s got the best school choice system. Every now and again I’d come across a research paper that ranks big-city school districts on the system they have in place for families to find and apply to different schools—charter, magnet, and other types of “choice in” schools. But I usually don’t get too far into them, like not past #1. Because if it ain’t Denver, I stop reading. That’s more based on bias than anything else. I was part of the team that built the common-enrollment system that Denver Public Schools uses for school choice. I imagine it’s probably like when you play football for Alabama, and another team is ranked #1. You’re not interested in the particulars. Until you get to #1. Well, the Brookings Institute came out with its rankings of school choice systems this week, and DPS is #1 among large districts, up from #5 in the same report last year. Here’s what the report says about the jump to #1:
This is due to improvements in Denver rather than backsliding in other high-performing districts. Denver previously had a strong choice system characterized by a centralized assignment process requiring a single application from parents for both charter and regular public schools. The school choice environment in Denver was enhanced substantially for 2015 through increased enrollment in alternative schools, the ability of parents to make side by side comparisons of schools on the school assignment website, the elimination of default school assignments for about half the schools in the city, and the reservation of seats at choice schools so that parents could exercise choice 365 days a year.
That last one is big: mid-year transfers. Previously, and in just about any other urban district, students who move during the year have one choice: their attendance-area school. DPS leadership, through its  district-charter compact, pushed charter schools to keep their enrollment doors open all year long and accept mid-year transfers, and there are lots of them in city school systems. The charter community in Denver deserves a lot of credit for taking on that “y’all come” responsibility that charters often get accused of shirking. But I didn’t agree with everything in the report, which criticizes DPS for having too many families who are happy with choice #1—their attendance-area school—and allowing them to sit out the choice process, which is one contributing factor to the city’s low choice “participation rate.”
A simple solution (to the low participation rate) would be to require every family to choose in order for their child to enroll, just as every district requires, for example, evidence of vaccinations.
Except vaccination records are evidence required as protection against the spread of illness. In a lot of cases, not participating in school choice is evidence of health—a good school nearby. I think most public school parents would prefer to send their child to the school closest to their home. They absolutely shouldn’t have to (and according to the Brookings report, a depressing 45% of the nation’s largest school districts still don’t give their families any public school choices). But districts shouldn’t require families to go through choice if they’re happy. And they should work hardest not at maximizing choice participation, but at giving every family a good school nearby. And then back that up with great, easy-to-use choice, like Denver’s (finally) top-ranked system.
An original version of this post appeared on The Great Equalizer as "The Top Choice in School Choice Systems is Finally Clear".
Michael Vaughn
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...

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