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Open Enrollment vs. Common Enrollment: Why School Choice is at Stake

One of the biggest cases for school choice is that students should be able to attend a different school than the one dictated by their home address. Regardless of whether or not it is low performing or overcrowded, any student should have a right to transfer if he/she is unhappy with the quality of his/her school experience.

This geographic freedom of choice is known as “open enrollment,” and although it isn’t practiced by many states or districts, it’s one of the most natural ways for those states and districts to institute the power of choice. Yet, it hasn’t gained much traction nationwide because of the historical importance that districts have placed on school zones and enrollment boundaries. This has given charter schools a leg-up in the reform battle since many of them (especially if authorized by a statewide entity like a university or a State DOE) enjoy the benefits of open enrollment.

This advantage for charter schools is also an advantage to growing communities and the districts that serve them. Most large districts today do not have the capital or the land to carry out multi-million dollar construction projects to absorb unanticipated growth. Public schools at 90-100% capacity stay overcrowded for years while the district itself struggles to fund capital projects, expand current buildings, utilize modular classrooms (i.e. trailers), or embark on hugely unpopular redistricting campaigns. The whole ordeal could be avoided simply by authorizing a charter school (or several of them) somewhere in the center of all the overcrowding. A decent sized K-8 could absorb as many as 500-1000 elementary and middle school students, relieving the local district schools of some overcrowding.

However, this also means “losing kids” to charter schools, and with them goes a lot of funding. The district would much rather move those kids in overcrowded schools to the half-empty school buildings across town, allowing them to keep the FTE funding and refill older schools. Amazing as it might sound, techniques are emerging that might allow them to do that.

A few major players (including New York, Boston, and Denver) have already moved to a limited style of open enrollment known as “common enrollment.” Although not statewide, it allows almost unlimited intradistrict student migration… but with a catch. Philadelphia, which is currently dealing with massive financial problems and a cheating scandal, is being petitioned to give it a shot at the high school level.

The Education Voters of Pennsylvania issued a brief on the topic, which explains how a new, single application would allow a high school student to apply to all public high schools within the district, in order of preference. There would also be a single timetable for enrollment, meaning a more predictable application season. The brief goes on to describe how labyrinthine the current choice system is, calling it “patently unfair” to option-seeking parents who have to “navigate the maze of 25 district-run neighborhood schools, 23 charter schools, 18 district-run magnet schools, and 12 district-run citywide schools.”

Let’s be honest, it’s not all that complicated. A parent living on one side of the city can eliminate most schools on the other side for sheer distance (as can student drivers). Most high schoolers want to go to school with their friends or existing teammates. Word-of-mouth and marketing usually points parents toward specific options, making decisions a lot easier than EVP implies.

Still, it’s clear that some reformers in Pennsylvania, specifically Philadelphia, feel that parents are overwhelmed not so much by the amount of options in the city as they are about the respective timelines and processes. To some degree, streamlining everything into one application might iron out significant administrative issues and get busy parents involved again.

But at its core, isn’t this just a perversion of open enrollment…a choice-tease, if you will? Doesn’t this plan turn the district into a big enrollment brokerage?

Oddly enough, it sounds like the fraternity and sorority recruitment process, otherwise known as “rush,” especially to those of you who joined the Greek system before it was hijacked by lawyers and risk management buzzkills.

In rush, any number of Greek organizations on campus lobby you to join their social club. Throughout summer rush, there are few rules beyond “Have Fun” and “Here, Drink This,” but once school starts there is a blackout period of formality in which only recruitment events authorized by the university can take place. It all culminates into one of the most beautiful and mystical events in collegiate life: Bid Day.

Needless to say, this process is rife with inequality. First off, a fraternity or sorority won’t even offer you a bid if they don’t like you. On the flip side, if you’re a legacy (i.e. related to a former member), you have a foot-in-the-door. Lies are told about rival houses and members, and lies are told about the awesomeness of the house you’re standing in and its members. Finally, the rushees list their favorite houses in order of priority, while the houses submit their final list of desirables. The university’s student life office then goes through every single name and matches rushees to their top houses, but only if those houses also offered them a place in the organization (a “bid”). Finally, on bid day, each rushee chooses his or her favorite house from among the ones listed on his or her bid card, and they become a “pledge.”

Common enrollment resembles this method with the exception that all the power is in the hands of the student life office. Public schools, by law, cannot choose who attends unless it is some type of magnet or gifted program, meaning there is no way for public schools to discriminate like fraternities or sororities in their acceptance (whew!). This means that students who were unhappy with their zoned school would be submitting a single application for every choice school in the city (neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, etc), and the city would decide where those kids go.

Although this is more fair than rush, it still limits choice. Streamlining the process is one thing, but putting the power of choice into the hands of the district essentially grants the enemies of school choice primacy over student enrollment allocation. “Top three choices” be damned, you can bet that if a half-empty district school is anywhere on a child’s priority list, the child is going there. Raise your hand if you really think any district enrollment broker would eagerly place a student into a 1st choice charter school over a struggling 3rd choice neighborhood school…

What’s even more misleading is that the common enrollment lobby uses a lot of language regarding “equity” and “access,” implying that open enrollment isn’t equitable or accessible. For one thing, open enrollment is the most equitable method since it allows any student anywhere to join any school he or she wants. As for accessibility, the reason that children aren’t getting into charter schools in Philadelphia is because the city put a moratorium on the authorization of new ones, despite massive waitlists and parental support. The truly equitable decision would be to authorize more charter schools in places with choice gaps, not re-appropriate thousands of students to patch up the leaky ship known as the Philadelphia Public School system.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia might be the next big domino to fall on this issue. With the political momentum of New York, Boston, and Denver behind it, common enrollment will pick up faster than we care to imagine. Now we’re left to wonder which is worse: traditional enrollment with boundary restrictions or common enrollment with placement brokers?

The heart of school choice is open enrollment, and any deviation from that is a perversion of freedom. If districts want to test common enrollment among their schools, that is their prerogative, but it would be 100% illegal to require the participation of any charter school authorized to use open enrollment, and it would be a travesty to require participation even from district authorized charter schools. Common enrollment is not school choice, it’s school collectivism.

If you’re interested in the open enrollment issue, the Education Commission of the States (located in Denver, ironically) has drafted a data set that covers all 50 states and their policies regarding open enrollment and student migration. Find out what your state policies are by visiting the site here. The map below is also from their website.


Interdistrict mandatory open enrollment


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