School Choice Isn't Real if Parents Don't Get Help

It’s college application time for high school seniors across the country. In Louisiana, prospective students will find a fairly straightforward admissions process for Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Materials are due by April 15 for fall admission. Students must demonstrate a 3.0 high school GPA across 19 core courses and an acceptable ACT or SAT score. That’s the deal.

Now, if only kindergarten admissions could be so simple. With the advent of an all-choice elementary and secondary school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, students no longer have a default seat in a zoned school. Everybody chooses.

To make this work for thousands of families, the process has to start early. This year, the main application round opened in late October and closes in late February. That’s right – the main deadline for applying to LSU is later than the main deadline for elementary school.

This is a huge shift for parents from what they would have experienced a generation ago. Back then, families just visited their zoned school in the late spring or early summer and registered.

Today, families review dozens of options, weigh trade-offs (e.g., distance from home vs. academic quality), consider each school’s level of competition for seats, and submit a ranked list through OneApp, the city’s centralized enrollment system. (Unless, of course, they decide to apply to schools that opt-out of that system, which is its own beast entirely.)

The enrollment system uses an algorithm that attempts to treat each applicant with maximum fairness. It considers factors like whether a child already has a sibling in a given school. Once the process is complete, families receive a single school assignment in April. It’s not like college, where you might apply to five schools and receive offers to attend all five. You get ONE school back. Families then claim their seat by registering.

Families that don’t participate in the main application round – which was more than 30 percent of entering kindergarten families in 2014-15 – face sharply reduced opportunities for seats in higher performing schools. They must choose from what’s left after the main round is done.

New Orleans has created a host of supports for families to engage with this new process. The enrollment system, called OneApp, has a dedicated team that rolls out improvements each year. There are Family Resource Centers in several locations around the city where parents can walk in and receive person-to-person assistance. There is an independently-produced Parents Guide that synthesizes all sorts of information about schools. The Urban League hosts a massive annual school fair at the Superdome.

But even in New Orleans, which is ten years into its all-choice era, this is still hard work for families, schools, and administrators. There’s a real difference between “increasing school choice” as an abstract policy position and making school choice work in practice.

Here are just a few examples of challenges our families experience:

  • School choice doesn’t just mean you can pick any school and go there. Seats are limited. The most popular open enrollment elementary school in New Orleans last year had 412 families apply in the main round for fewer than 40 seats. What if you do all your research, identify your favorite schools, and don’t get any of them?
  • It’s not that easy to distinguish “good” and “bad” schools. Each child and family has different needs and wants different things. But even when we’re just talking about academic results, it’s tricky. The State of Louisiana’s letter grades for schools are based overwhelmingly on absolute student performance levels, not student growth. There are A and B schools where students don’t grow that much, and there are C and D schools where they grow quite a lot. The letter grades help, but they don’t tell you everything.
  • Schools move. Literally. It’s part of having a dynamic landscape. New schools start small and move as they add grades and need more space. Schools relocate temporarily as facilities are remodeled. Schools move into buildings that have become available because a low performing school has been closed. Because most schools are K-8, there’s a chance that somewhere in the time your student is attending the school you choose, it won’t be where it is now. Will it still be accessible?

With some help, parents can navigate these challenges. But those of us who support parent choice make two avoidable mistakes very often.

First, we gloss over these challenges and act like they don’t exist. We imply that the benefits of families having choices are so obvious that any small inconveniences are surely worth it. Good luck selling that to parents. They experience the process of choice long before they experience any of the beneficial outcomes of choice. Give them a bad process, and their mind is going to be made up.

Second, we assume parents will figure things out on their own. They’ll go to a website and review school profiles. They’ll read somewhere that the application period is now open. Sometimes this is true. But not always. Plenty of families we serve do not have access to computers and get Internet only through their phones. They work pretty much all the time. They are struggling to make ends meet every single week. Their free time is very limited. And when the assumption is that families will find the supports that are out there and use those supports to make school choice work, there will be lots of cases when things don’t turn out well. Those families are not going to be champions of school choice going forward. They might become some of its loudest opponents.

The solution is not to cling to an outmoded system that traps families in failing schools. Instead, we should invest consistently in the family-side supports that complement and balance the investments made in changing educational systems. It’s not enough to make help available for those who can find it; if we are serious about making choice work for all families, we also need ways for help to find families, even if they haven’t had time to look for it yet.

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