Lessons in School Choice: What the RSD’s Unified Enrollment System Can Learn from Other Cities
By: Jill Zimmerman | December 6, 2011
In our recent publication, Case Studies of School Choice and Open Enrollment in Four Cities, we suggest that education stakeholders in New Orleans could learn from the successes and failures of school choice and open enrollment policies in other cities across the country. As the Recovery School District (RSD) prepares to implement its new citywide enrollment system, it should consider what lessons can be gleaned from past experiences in New Orleans as well as in cities that have successfully implemented an open enrollment public school system such as Cambridge, San Diego, and New York City.
1. Parents, students, and school counselors need support in navigating a complex system.
Even with a citywide centralized enrollment system in place, the process of applying, selecting, and enrolling in school can be difficult to navigate. In each district we studied, the district provides resources to help guide families through the enrollment process. These resources include Family Resource Centers, a school catalogue, brochures and FAQs, school-based parent liaisons, district-coordinated school fairs and school tours, and robust school district websites. In New Orleans, a number of nonprofit organizations provide information on public school options. Nonetheless, it must be the responsibility of the RSD, as well as the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), to ensure that parents have the information and support they need to navigate the enrollment system.
2. Even sophisticated systems of matching students with schools leave some students without their preferred assignment.
In Cambridge, San Diego, and New York City, between 10 to 28 percent of students each year are not assigned to one of their top choice schools. Though it is clear that each student will receive one offer at the end of the lottery process, the RSD has not yet elaborated on how students will be assigned to schools in the new unified enrollment system. Assignments may be based on parental preferences and on decision rules which give priority based on siblings and geographic catchments. As the RSD finalizes these decision rules and the student assignment process, it must consider how best to handle the students and families who are not assigned to one of their top choice schools.
3. The existence of neighborhood schools can impact the extent to which parents and students exercise their choice to go elsewhere.
In San Diego where participation in the open enrollment program is voluntary, students are assigned to a neighborhood school unless they opt in to the choice program. A 2006 study found that about 28 percent of students attended a choice school, the majority of whom were black, Asian, or Hispanic. As the RSD considers implementing geographic catchments to prioritize students who live in a school’s general neighborhood, it must balance the importance of neighborhood schools with parents’ ability to choose. Improving access to high quality schools for all public school students in New Orleans must continue to be the priority.
The current system of school choice in New Orleans in which each school manages its own enrollment process leads to significant inequities. We commend the RSD for taking the critical step of creating a citywide enrollment system. We hope the RSD will consider the lessons gleaned from other open enrollment school districts, as well as from previous experience in New Orleans, in order to ensure the new unified enrollment system truly meets the needs of students and families.