3 Things to Keep in Mind When Implementing School Choice

Posted January 28, 2016

students and moms with signs supporting school choice

School choice — where parents can apply to get their children into schools outside of their assigned neighborhood school — has been on the rise in recent years, with some controversy along the way. Many parents, along with school choice advocates, have called for being given access to high-quality schools that are best suited to give their children the skills and knowledge they need to enter the 21st century workplace. According to the Brookings Institution, 55 percent of students nationwide were given some form of school choice during 2015. There’s even a National School Choice Week, started in 2011, during which there’s been an expanding array of events happening across the country.

School choice can take several different forms, from more transparency in magnet school choice, for example, to full-fledged universal enrollment, which allows parents to apply to all district and charter schools using a single form and process. For districts and cities contemplating school choice, there are a few trends and developments worth keeping in mind.

Parents Want Better Access to Information

Without access to information about available schools and how they can apply, parents aren’t truly able to exercise their children’s right to school choice. Finding this information — what schools are available, their areas of focus, application requirements and deadlines, and enrollment policies — can be extremely time consuming and complicated. Often there is no single place or resource where this information can be found. In fact, it can require repeated phone calls and even multiple visits to sort out — for those parents who even have the time to do that.

Meanwhile, the children of other parents who have more resources or knowledge of how school choice works may have an advantage over children whose families have jobs where they can’t get time off. Some families have even hired consultants to help identify and apply to the best schools. As a result, the school choice process can be seen as unfair, opaque, and inefficient. In some cases, parents must appear in person at a school or district office to enroll their child. While this reality is burdensome for many, it poses a critical challenge to low-income parents who risk losing their jobs if they take time off.

Until recently, applying to multiple schools within a district meant parents had to keep track of a pile of different paper-based forms, each one outlining a different process, policy, and deadline. Fortunately, that is beginning to change for the better. Districts in cities such as Denver, New Orleans, Washington D.C., New York, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Newark, and Camden are beginning to modernize this time-consuming and inefficient process with an easy-to-use online application process and a single deadline for all participating schools.

As a recent EdWeek article on school choice describes, “Parents rank schools in order of preference, and then an algorithm, which takes into account certain preferences (such as geographic location or where siblings attend school), generates one single, best offer for each student.”

Providing an online application process makes it easier for parents to understand the policies and procedures surrounding school choice in their area. It also helps district administrators understand the trends shaping enrollment in their district through better reporting and analytics. That makes it easier for them to get answers to important questions such as which schools are most often selected as first-choice schools or which schools might need intervention or support due to low demand.

Districts Are Responding with Better Resources

Districts have an opportunity to make the school choice process easier for everyone by providing a web-based hub, also accessible via mobile devices, where families can access information about all of the schools in the district, including charter schools. Several districts have already begun offering better resources to families in an effort to lend more transparency to the process and help them successfully navigate their options for school choice.

Camden Schools recently rolled out a new city-wide enrollment website, camdenenrollment.org, to serve as a central resource for information surrounding school choice. Parents in the district can access the site to familiarize themselves with the policies and key deadlines connected with the newly designed school choice process, make informed decisions on where to apply, and have a better chance of getting their children into the school they feel is best suited for them.

Some districts also release guidebooks, offer other special publications, and host school choice fairs designed to help parents and students understand the options available to them as well as to clarify the process for exercising school choice. Camden and other districts are also opting to provide a single, mobile-friendly, online application so that parents can easily apply to all the schools they are considering for their children.

Help Parents Participate in School Choice

To make sure that parents can fully participate in school choice, it is also important for districts to pay special attention to outreach so that families are familiarized with the educational options available to their children. Some districts offer a series of school fairs and expos to give families a chance to meet with school administrators and get their questions answered in person. Others establish customer service hotlines where parents can get information and timely advice about researching and applying to schools.

Enabling school choice is about more than simply providing information, however. Transportation is also a critical aspect of the school choice process, which raises equity concerns for low-income families. According to a 2014 survey on school choice from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), 32 percent of Cleveland parents reported experiencing difficulty finding transportation for their child to and from school.

Meanwhile, transportation options haven’t caught up with the demand; according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, just 10 percent of districts provide transportation for students to any school within the district. As the report notes, that places “severe practical constraints on the exercise of school choice for families in which all the adults hold down jobs with 9-5 workdays or do not have a car.” In order to allow families to truly be able to exercise school choice, districts will have to find solutions to this major barrier.

With school choice becoming more commonplace in the educational landscape, districts have a great opportunity to help families access the resources they need to make the important educational decisions that will impact their children’s futures. By providing easily accessible informational resources on the web and offering unified online application forms, districts are providing families with better transparency and improved tools for participating in school choice initiatives, ensuring that more students have the opportunity to enroll at the school that’s right for them.


Key Points about School Choice

  • School choice is a growing trend in the United States. Recent survey data from the Brookings Institution indicates that some form of school choice is available to 55 percent of students nationwide.
  • Parents want transparency to the school choice process so they can better understand the policies and processes for participating.
  • Districts are beginning to respond with better informational resources, such as mobile-friendly websites that present all the information parents need to know about school choice in one place.
  • A growing number of American cities such as Denver, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York are now offering universal enrollment, in which parents have the opportunity to participate in school choice using a single online application form.
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