Universal enrollment and the potential for a perfect school-choice marketplace

Efforts at a common, one-stop school-application process, a.k.a. “universal enrollment,” are underway for the first time in Washington, D.C.,  and Newark, New Jersey, and are under consideration in Philadelphia. Universal enrollment is already up and running in New Orleans and Denver, as well. The plans vary in size, scope, and complexity, but they are rational ways to put parents and students first within a dizzying array of educational choices. In fact, it’s clear that there are more school seats in most large cities than there are children to fill them.

Every parent theoretically has a number of choices, but the reality is that the school “marketplace” is often difficult to understand or navigate. Data are absent or inconsistent from school to school, different deadlines require quick decisions, applications can be hard to acquire or for families to complete, and visiting schools can be very difficult when parents and guardians don’t have access to or control over transportation and scheduling. All of these conspire to limit an individual family’s real choices even when quality school seats go begging.

To me, there are three basic components of choice that must work in unison: quality, visibility, and accessibility. If these are in place and functioning at peak, then a vibrant marketplace can exist and parents will likely be empowered with a number of realistic and attainable options for their children.

Quality: This is the piece of the school-choice equation that remains unsettled, even for education-policy wonks like us. Sometimes, we can’t even decide what “quality” means, let alone how to measure it. So whether we can agree upon one measure of school quality for an apples-to-apples comparison or we simply make as much data as possible readily available (district, charter, online, private) so parents can compare in their own way, the ideal state has yet to be reached. What is clear is that while there are a lot of data out there, we must ensure they are actually comparable. And, bottom line, a lot of the choices out there are not very good no matter how you slice them. If all or most of the choices are bad, parents really have no choice at all. Seats in good schools are not always easy to access, and seats in low-performing schools are all too readily available. A universal-enrollment system would not in itself affect the quality of school options, but it would be the perfect venue in which to make comparison data available. And maybe if parents make good choices, the bad ones will be left undersubscribed and will be forced to improve or perish.

Visibility: This pertains to not only the quality comparison data mentioned above but also the larger matter of the schools themselves being visible to parents. Choices most likely exist in a given area, but parents who do not know they have options or don’t know how to find out about those options really don’t have true choice. In my home state of Ohio, Right School Right Now in Cleveland, GreatSchools, community groups like Southside STAY in Columbus, and nonprofits like School Choice Ohio are all good tools to raise the visibility of educational choices. Central advertising of all options without bias toward or against a certain type of school (public, public charter, private) would go a long way toward making options visible. (It would be even better if those doing the advertising could actually say whether the schools are high-quality options!)  A centralized universal-enrollment process would allow all options to be equally visible—one-stop shopping, if you will.

Accessibility: Critics of school choice often slap charters and voucher-taking private schools (and even magnet schools within districts that they otherwise support) with the label “cherry pickers.” They take the best kids available and leave “the rest” for traditional districts. They argue that parents having to do anything beyond walking in the front door of the building is a “barrier” to access that the parents cannot surmount; the mere fact that a parent considered an option supposedly puts her and her kids in a higher bracket of family involvement, giving the chosen school an advantage that schools without limits to access cannot overcome. While there is merit in the argument that motivated parents will positively impact student outcomes, the idea that this fact should therefore mandate fewer options seems wrong. Coupled with universal quality and full visibility, a centralized universal-enrollment system for any and all options would not only eliminate many of the “barriers” to choice that exist, but it would also allow for more resources (interpreters, social workers, special-needs professionals, family-law advisers, transportation officials, etc.) to be in place to help families for whom the only real barrier to choice is ignorance. Again, this is a heavy lift, but steps are being made in places like Cleveland and New Orleans. I would also say that as we already know what the opposite looks like, a one-stop shop for all school enrollment is preferable.

We need a true system that includes all options as equally obtainable for parents. The biggest barrier is the endless turf war over “our money,” but a universal-enrollment system seems a great way to put parents and students first, ahead of money and ownership of students.

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