How School Choice Can Become Ridiculous and What to Do About It

Last Wednesday, a Cincinnati parent who works at a startup software company posted Waiting For Kindergarten, the story of the 16 days he spent camping out in a tent to get a spot in the right kindergarten for one of his children. He wasn’t alone. Lots of parents weren’t comfortable with the local neighborhood schools that their children would be assigned to automatically, a phenomenon one writer called  polite racism but others would describe simply as white flight. Eventually, tents in front of Fairview-Clifton German Language School, a magnet program created in 1974, “filled the entire hillside each night.” The Cincinnati situation isn’t common any more. “Most school districts have a formal magnet school application process that often utilize randomized lotteries when their magnet schools have waiting lists,” according to John Laughner of the Magnet School Association. But it isn’t unique, either. In many places, magnet programs like this one—originally designed to promote racial integration—have become more competitive, and less diverse. Charter schools add to the menu of options. While overnight campouts are unusual, old-school tools like required meetings, paper applications and a dazzling array of deadlines are still pretty common. It’s enough to give “choice” a bad name, notes Neil Dorosin, an expert in selection and matching systems:
Deprived of access to an organized process, many families  despair over the complexity and difficulty of accessing schools. The situation is also hard on schools and school administrators. In the absence of a centrally organized process, they often experience a great degree of registration instability.
One approach to addressing the obvious problems with these kinds of situations is something called Unified Enrollment, in which all schools—district, magnet and charter—operate under one timeline, one form (or website) and one lottery. Basically, it gives everyone the same chance to apply to and get into popular schools, regardless of ability to fill out different application forms, attend various meetings or—in extreme cases—camp out for more than two weeks. A handful of cities already have it: Denver, D.C., Newark and New Orleans. New York City has it for high schools only. A handful more like Baltimore and Los Angeles have streamlined their process but stopped short of a fully unified system. I’m told it’s being contemplated in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Oakland, Camden and Detroit. The benefits of a streamlined system are obvious. Before creating the unified system in 2011, there were 62 different forms and application deadlines in Denver. Now there’s one form, one date and parents rank their preferences so that schools don’t have to go through an extended waiting period while parents figure out what they’re going to do. However, getting everyone—charters, magnets and selective enrollment schools—to use the same timeline, application form and all the rest is no easy task. Chicago and Philly both tried and failed to get it done, blocked by a variety of factors including angry parents and reluctant charters. Read more about school choice and its poor management from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. A think tank took a look at how school choice is working in Denver and New Orleans. Thanks to MSDF’s  Joe Siedlecki for the information. Learn more about New York City's high school application process featured in the New York Times.  
Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer. An earlier version of this post, appeared on his blog, The Grade.
Photo courtesy of Gerard Sychay.
Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who currently writes at his blog, The Grade and the national news site This Week In Education He has created several long-running blogs such as

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