Bring unified enrollment to Boston schools

A proposal to centralize the school assignment system in Boston, recently unveiled by Mayor Walsh, is a sensible approach that promises to level the playing field for parents by providing more information, more options, and, in the end, more equity. The city’s plan, which would offer a single application process for both charter and district schools, is garnering some skepticism in community meetings. But it should ultimately empower both students and parents, and deserves to be implemented on schedule for the 2017 school year.

Now, families are forced to manage varying timelines and separate forms if they wish to apply to charter schools, which admit students based on a lottery. Meanwhile, because of the high demand for charters, as evidenced by their long waiting lists, some families also apply through the Boston Public Schools system to get a neighborhood-based assignment for a district school in case the student doesn't get picked in the charter lottery. The current process can be opaque and confusing, convey a sense that access is limited, and scare away parents unable to navigate the system. Indeed, charter schools are often vilified for being highly selective, leaving out high-need students, such as English-language learners or students with disabilities.


But when folded into a unified assignment system along with the traditional public schools, charters will essentially operate as neighborhood schools. The BPS uses an algorithm based on distance from home and educational quality to offer a customized list of 6 to 10 schools for each family. Under the proposal, that list would now include both charters and traditional school options, which parents then rank according to preference. A seat will be assigned using availability, sibling preference, and a random number. "We can't track kids across sectors," said Boston school superintendent Tommy Chang. "This is an opportunity to look at the data and figure out where are the bright spots and how we can learn from them."

A universal assignment system will also mean that BPS would save on transportation costs. More students would be attending schools near their homes, which means fewer kids would need to be bused across the city.

The number of districts across the country embracing a universal enrollment plan is on the rise. Denver and New Orleans were the first two cities that adopted a unified system, and early research finds some positives. A study found evidence that "a lot of confusion and inequities have been eliminated thanks to the centralized application and choice system." Similarly, such systems are providing important insight into what factors parents look at when choosing schools.


The same report found that parents are hungry for detailed information about schools, including an understanding of the culture and the educational and instructional approach in the classroom. Many city parents don't know enough about the charter schools in their neighborhoods. Additionally, given the software hiccups the BPS system experienced this year, which left thousands of families confused about their kids' school assignment, the city ought to make sure the technical capacity is up to snuff before launching.

A common enrollment plan wouldn't be available until early 2017, in time for the beginning of the school year that fall. The city has already launched a series of community meetings on the proposal. "We don't have agreements or anything. It is really a set of ideas and principles about bringing charters into the home-based system," said Turahn Dorsey, the mayor's chief of education.

And yet, Walsh is showing admirable determination to bring the plan to fruition. "We've had a system for a long time that has been [successful] in some individual schools but across the board we haven't had the success we want," he said. The city and the BPS are on the right track to help parents — all parents — make the best choice for their children.