Monday, February 16, 2015

School choice in Detroit?

The Detroit Free Press has a story on the current debate: Common enrollment: Lessons for Detroit

When preparing to move to Washington, D.C., in 2012, Erika and Lamont Harrell spent so much time applying to charter schools that it felt like a full-time job.
They filled out 24 applications — a dozen for each of their two sons — and juggled different school websites and deadlines.
That was before My School DC, a common enrollment and lottery system that has one application and the same deadline schedule for most of the city's publicly funded schools, including charters. A week-long task one year turned into 20 minutes the next.
"The process is just so much easier, and it's less stressful," said Erika Harrell, 33.
More than 200 miles away, in Newark, N.J., the first days of the school year in September were marked by student and parent protests of a similar reform effort called One Newark. Some parents complained that their children were matched to far-away schools that they didn't put on their list.
Common enrollment — in which a computer algorithm tries to match kids to their top-ranked schools — is one of the main reform ideas bubbling out of the discussions around reshaping public education in Detroit.
Changing how kids enroll won't improve academics — a significant issue in a city where more than 80% of ranked schools in Detroit Public Schools are in the bottom quarter statewide. But supporters say it would give all families an equal shot at seats in sought-after schools, bring order to what is now a chaotic enrollment process and stabilize school rosters earlier in the year. The data gleaned from it could inform decisions on which schools should close.
Common enrollment can be tough to sell to parents, at least initially.
The cities that have common enrollment — such as Denver, Newark, New Orleans and Washington — offer lessons for Detroit.
Officials there say they have had significant successes in getting kids matched with their top-choice schools.
But no system is perfect. In Denver, for example, researchers say common enrollment has been stable and successful, but lingering gaps remain in terms of participation by minority, special-ed and low-income students. They also said the city needs more seats in high-performing schools to meet demand.
Improving choice for all students
Common enrollment works best when all or most schools are involved, experts say. The systems have centralized management.
In Denver, where common enrollment launched in 2012, 100% of public schools participate, including charters.
Denver officials say they're happy with how it's working. In the system's first three years, between 76% and 89% of all students were matched with one of their choices, and between 64% and 72% got their first choice school, according to a recent study by the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education.
"Previously ... we had over 60 application processes and time lines, so only the savviest of parents were able to take advantage of school choice," said Roberta Walker, manager of choice and enrollment for Denver Public Schools.
The school district was an early supporter. A promise of transparency (the system is audited annually) and some pressure from foundations that fund charter schools helped bring charters on board, said Mike Kromrey, executive director of the community group Together Colorado.
Denver Public Schools runs the system, called SchoolChoice.
Getting everybody on board could be stickier in Detroit. The city has a decentralized education system with roughly 100 schools within Detroit Public Schools, 64 charter school districts (made up of 98 schools) and a 15-school reform district for the state's worst schools.
And with a dozen charter authorizers, Detroit has far more than the other cities. In Denver, for example, the public school district is the only charter authorizer.
The charter sector has exploded in Detroit in recent years, leading to fierce competition for students.
"It takes a great deal of trust across schools for everybody to commit to a centralized process," said Betheny Gross, senior analyst for the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
"A charter school is not naturally going to be inclined to hand over their enrollment process. ... Each child comes with a bundle of resources that funds their school."
In New Orleans, the common enrollment system called OneApp brought order and transparency to a chaotic process. But in a city where about 95% of students attend charters, some of the highest-performing schools have opted out.
"If every school isn't going to be in it, it doesn't resolve the problem that it was created to resolve. It doesn't give you access to every school," said Karran Harper Royal, a New Orleans resident and outspoken critic of OneApp.
Supporters say common enrollment has made it hard for schools to "cream" students — using back-door methods to selectively admit children or push others out. A principal couldn't specifically seek out students with good test scores, for example.
"In the absence of any meaningful regulation, this stuff can happen all the time," said Neil Dorosin, executive director of the New York-based Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice. The group helps build common enrollment systems.
In Newark, common enrollment was attacked by some families who complained siblings were split up. Mayor Ras Baraka publicly blasted what he called superintendent Cami Anderson's "secret" algorithm. Anderson has argued that, despite some initial bugs, the system has improved school access.
Newark officials have since added a feature that will allow families to move all of their children to the same school, Dorosin said.
Centralized authority
In cities with common enrollment, one authority oversees the systems.
Whereas the public school system runs common enrollment in Denver, in Washington, D.C., it falls under the deputy mayor for education. New Orleans' system is run by the state reform Recovery School District, with input from the local Orleans Parish School Board. The state-operated Newark Public Schools district handles enrollment there.
The applications that parents fill out are processed by a central clearinghouse.
In contrast, a Detroit parent who wants to sign up their kid for a DPS school today has to make an in-person visit. Three schools require an entrance exam, and one a performing arts audition. About two dozen DPS schools require an application.
The city's charter schools have their own applications, due dates and lotteries.
"There's no coordination now. A kid can get into Cass Tech High School and four different charters. The schools often don't know if they're actually going to get that kid" until well after the school year starts, Dorosin said. "It makes it difficult (for schools) to plan."
Districts don't get the full amount of state funding for students who enroll after the fall count day.
The nonprofit education group Excellent Schools Detroit is pushing for a new commission to oversee school openings and closings, transportation and enrollment across the city. The proposal comes as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren is facing a March 31 deadline to come up with proposed school reforms.
Implementing full common enrollment in Detroit would likely require legislative changes, experts say. But lawmakers might balk.
"The expansion of school choice and putting parents in the driver's seat has been the general path the government has been on. If recommendations were to come ... that restricted choice and artificially managed or regulated choice, I would ... think that many in the Legislature" would have serious questions, said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter lobbying group.
Naeyaert said he believes "managed and regulated choice is not free and full choice."

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