Common Enrollment for Charters
by Marcus A. Winters
Charter schools offer a lifeline to parents who can’t afford to pay private tuition or move to a better neighborhood. The rapid expansion of charters has done more to spread high quality education in America’s cities than perhaps any other modern reform. And yet, the way charters enroll students could be improved. Several cities have recently adopted a simple reform that has increased access to charter schools among disadvantaged parents.
In most cities, when the number of applicants to a charter exceeds the number of seats available, enrollment offers are determined randomly. The process ensures that all applicants have an equal chance of getting in. But in reality, some parents face greater barriers than others. Parents must first know that charter schools exist and that their kids are eligible to attend them. Not all do. Even parents who are aware of charter schools may not appreciate that getting in to one requires more than the traditional registration process. There are deadlines for turning in application materials that often differ from school to school. Navigating all this takes time and energy that can be difficult for poor families to muster. A recent survey conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found that anywhere from a quarter to a third of parents had trouble determining whether their children were eligible to attend a particular charter school. Similarly large proportions of parents said that they had difficulty with application deadlines and paperwork. These troubles were especially pronounced for parents with low levels of education and parents of children with special needs.
Several cities have adopted a new system to enroll students in both charter and district schools that couples fair lotteries with an inclusive application process. Under so-called “common enrollment,” parents turn in a single form listing in order the schools that they would like their child to attend. Each student is then given a randomly generated lottery number and an algorithm then matches students to school seats according to availability and the family’s stated preference. This process is based on the efficient matching strategies for which Alvin Roth won the Nobel Prize in economics. A similar process is used to assign medical students to residencies and match those seeking kidney transplants to donors.