Running a Successful School Lottery

Posted March 19, 2016


lotteries can be run entirely online

Every year, typically from January through April, charter schools and school districts where school choice is in effect conduct lotteries that give prospective students the opportunity to secure a seat for the coming academic year. In the lottery system, parents submit an application to the school by a set deadline, after which all applications that have been received are placed into a lottery pool. On the date of the lottery, student names are drawn from the pool, and those students are assigned open seats at the school. If a child is not accepted at the time of the lottery, they may be placed on a waitlist until seats open up.

The stakes can be high. Parents want to ensure that their children have access to the best educational opportunities available. Schools want to ensure that the lottery process is equitable, efficient, and fair, but those desired outcomes can be difficult to accomplish using a manual or paper-based system. Fortunately, with the aid of technology that streamlines the lottery, schools can now conduct a successful lottery that is quicker, simpler, and more reliable for both schools and families. New online lottery systems streamline the lottery process while giving parents more visibility into how it is run.

Address the Potential for Human Error

Many schools still use a manual process in which parents apply for the lottery via a paper form, then the school must validate each handwritten application to make sure that it is eligible for the priorities that have been requested—for example, students who are already enrolled in an eligible pre-K program or whose parents are employed at the school to which they are applying might get priority. Each child registered for the lottery is assigned a ticket that goes into a bingo ball machine or a bucket, and then the winning students’ names are drawn out one by one.

This process leaves significant room for human error and doesn’t provide a secure audit trail. A child’s paper lottery application could end up on someone’s desk and never make it into the drawing, for example. A paper-based lottery also involves a lot of manual screening, which can lead to other unintended errors. Even when priorities and school preferences are legibly and correctly noted in the lottery application form, schools must manually manage the complex system of assigning various priorities and preferences to each of the students in the pool before the lottery can be run. As a result, some children may miss out on priorities that they should be eligible for. Some parents might feel that they have no control over how the lottery is conducted and may harbor concerns that the process is not transparent or equitable, and as a result, lack confidence in it.

With an automated lottery system, data accuracy is managed from the point at which a parent applies through the system. Lotteries are then automatically run with unique, customizable priorities, timelines, and applicant types. Schools who are using online systems to run their lotteries express relief and enthusiasm over the data accuracy and reliability, which increases their confidence in the process, in parent communications, and in meeting compliance requirements.

Ease Time Constraints for Parents and Schools

For parents, waiting to find out whether their child got into the school of their choice is challenging. Some parents might be managing applications at 15 to 20 charter schools simultaneously. Most parents don’t have the time to check in with each school to find out where their child’s application is in the process and whether or not their child got a seat. This could unintentionally give parents with more resources and time a better shot at winning the lottery, leading to the perception among some parents that the system is unfair or can be gamed.

With online and mobile access, parents can apply online and track the status of the application anytime, saving significant amounts of time, minimizing anxiety, and avoiding unnecessary paperwork.

Even after the lottery has concluded, the amount of follow-up required on the part of schools can be onerous and time consuming. Schools must reach out to parents one by one to let them know that their child received an offer, that they’ve been waitlisted, or that they didn’t get in. For a network of schools comprising thousands of students, the challenge is compounded further, consuming an incredible amount of time and taxing staff that are already stretched thin. With an automated system, offer status communications are automatically generated based on the lottery results.

Simplify the Application Process for Parents

The pain points parents experience with a manual lottery process can be alleviated by switching to an online system. Parents can use a single mobile app or website to register for the school lotteries of their choice and respond to a series of question regarding their child, such as free or reduced price school lunch or status as child of an employee at the school.

Once the lottery applications have been registered, it’s easy and much faster for parents to get updates on their child’s lottery results at all of the schools just by logging into the app. This way, they can feel that they have more control over the admissions process and make timely decisions about where to enroll their child. Since lottery applications can be provided in multiple languages, parents whose first language is not English can better participate in the lottery system, leveling the playing field for all children.

Streamline Lottery Management for Staff

Once a school switches from a manual lottery to an online one, they find that it saves them a lot of staff time and increases internal operational efficiency. Compared to a manual lottery process, which can take several hours or even days in some cases, an online lottery can be run in a matter of minutes. Once the lottery is complete, a school can automatically send out electronic notifications to parents letting them know whether or not their child has been offered a seat, waitlisted, or declined.

In addition, an online lottery system allows a school to centrally store all institutional knowledge about the lottery process so that if a staff member is out sick or takes a new position, someone else can easily administer the lottery in their place. Staff that are responsible for conducting the lottery can easily train their colleagues on how to run it, empowering multiple members of the team to share the work and back one another up if necessary. Lottery logic, which governs how the lottery operates, can be created and customized, then automated. And with the benefit of such an automated system, charter school staff can also have greater confidence that they are prepared to undergo a lottery audit and provide accurate, regular reports to charter authorizers.

By upgrading to an online lottery process, schools can make it easier for parents to keep track of their child’s status while also reducing the possibility of errors or mistakes in the system. This eases parents’ frustrations and gives them peace of mind that their child will receive a fair shot at a good education, addressing their concerns about potential issues of fairness and equity. Meanwhile, school staff can benefit from a faster, more efficient, and less complex lottery process that is centrally administered and provides timely, automatic status notifications to parents on the results of the lottery. This way, parents can feel better informed and more in control about the educational opportunities available to their children.

Key Points about Running a Successful Lottery

  • Parents find a manual lottery process difficult to navigate, particularly if they are keeping tabs on applications at multiple schools at the same time.
  • Schools feel that a manual lottery process can be time consuming, leading to manual errors that may affect a child’s educational opportunities.
  • By switching to an online lottery system, schools can provide parents with the tools they need to easily track their child’s application status.
  • Schools taking advantage of an online lottery process also enjoy increased productivity and efficiency—a lottery takes just seconds to run, and multiple staff can be trained on how to do it.
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