How a Common Application Could Work for Detroit Parents

When it comes to choosing a school in Detroit, families are faced with a wide variety of school applications. Making it more difficult for parents, these applications require different information and are due at different times. To make it easier for families, some are advocating for a "common enrollment" system. With common enrollment, families would fill out a single application to apply at any school in Detroit.

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But efforts to create a common enrollment system should not merely be about creating a centralized process to make school administration easier. The first priority should be to make the school enrollment process in Detroit as inclusive as possible, without limiting parental choice.

An Inclusive Process
Many critics of school choice voice the concern that only more affluent parents will be able take the time to research schools and be willing to transport their child to a better school. The less affluent parents, these critics say, will stay at their assigned conventional school — leaving the conventional school with the responsibility of educating students who often struggle more with coursework.

With regards to charter schools in Michigan, this does not appear to be the case, as these schools serve a larger share of low-income families compared to their conventional school counterparts. Evidence from Denver, however, suggests that there may be some merit to this argument when it comes to common enrollment applications. Denver's common enrollment system is opt-in — students are assigned to a conventional school based on where they live, but that they can fill out a common application to attend any other school in the city.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education reports that students from white  families (tending to be wealthier on average) are more likely to participate in common enrollment than students from minority families (tending to be lower income on average). According to the CRPE, in 2014, 85 percent of white students participated in the common enrollment process, compared to 63 percent of black students, and 71 percent of Hispanic students.

In comparison, the New Orleans common enrollment system does not assign students to any default schools — making a choice about where to go to school is mandatory. The CRPE concluded:

[W]hen parents must opt-in to a choice system, as is the case in Denver, more advantaged parents may be more likely to participate in common enrollment than less advantaged parents.

If a common enrollment system preserves the status quo, where the nearby district school is a student's default school, and that a student can only attend a charter school by opting in to the common enrollment system, students with less involved parents may be less likely to participate in the choice process and less likely to attend charter schools. Invariably, this will lead to a disproportionate share of students from less involved families attending address-based, default district schools.

To make the common enrollment process as inclusive as possible, Detroit should follow the example of New Orleans and use a common enrollment application process for all families.

Place choice directly in Detroit families' hands

Noted throughout CRPE's research was the perception of some families that the common enrollment system was rigged — or could be manipulated by strategy. CRPE emphasized that this was not the case in either New Orleans or Denver; however, it is important to make the process as transparent and responsive to parents as possible. A common application process for Detroit should give parents the final say in where their children go to school.

A black box system where parents rate schools in order of preference and then receive a school match from a central authority would be prioritizing administrative efficiency over parental control. A process that puts parents first would have schools adhere to a common enrollment application and a single common enrollment timeline. As a general example, Detroit schools could follow a schedule like the following:

  • Detroit families would fill out a common application and rank the district and charter schools they prefer. This application would be due on the same date for all schools.
  • Schools would receive a list of students who have applied to their school, and if too many students applied, the schools would hold lotteries to determine seats to offer. All schools would have to hold lotteries within a set time period. Lotteries could use a weighted system so that families who listed the school as a first choice would have more of a chance than families that listed the school as a last choice.
  • Families would receive back their list of chosen schools, with information about whether they had received an open seat, or were placed on the waiting list for each school to which they had applied. Parents would have a set time period to decide on a school and whether to stay on a waiting list.
  • Enrollment information would be transmitted back to the schools. If schools have additional seats available after families make their first decision, schools would have another round of lotteries for the newly open seats.
  • Wait-listed families would receive notification from schools, and make a final enrollment decision. 

Feedback for Schools and Families
A common application process and resulting public school choice system in Detroit would provide valuable information to families and school officials. In New Orleans, for example, information is published each year about how many students applied to each school, and whether the school was able to fill all of its available seats. Information is also published about the most popular educational problems. Language immersion programs, for example, were especially popular for kindergartners, The Times-Picayune reports. This type of feedback can be especially helpful for school officials seeking to offer new programs or to revise existing ones.

Further, making it easier for parents to participate in a school choice system will likely result in more parents choosing better schools. In an analysis of school enrollment data, the CRPE found that school performance was "a powerful predictor" of how highly families rated schools. In fact, when reviewing Denver choice data, the CRPE found that school performance was a more important factor for black and Hispanic families than white families.

There is a need in Detroit to make the school choice process as accessible as possible for all Detroit families, and to make sure the choice process places parental needs first. Preserving default schools under a common enrollment system may result in fewer parents choosing the best school for their children, and may lead to students from less-involved families remaining in district-run schools. To make a common enrollment system as inclusive and effective as possible, the default, address-based school enrollment system should be eliminated altogether, and parents should have the ultimate say over where their children go to school.

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