Originally appeared in PIE Network Post. Published online: April 19, 2019, as “Helping Families Choose: Advocates Discuss Open Enrollment in Colorado”
Imagine a world where you could only go to the hospital closest to where you lived. For many situations, this might be just fine. Primary care and ER visits, in particular, are situations where minimizing distance is really important. However, sometimes you need a specialist. Distance might still be a factor, but there are other important things to consider too: compatibility of your schedule, whether that doctor takes your insurance, and most importantly, the quality of the doctor and fit with your needs.
LIKE PICKING A SPECIALIST, SCHOOL CHOICE SYSTEMS ARE AN IMPORTANT TOOL FOR FAMILIES THAT ARE SEEKING THE RIGHT SCHOOL TO MEET THEIR STUDENTS’ PARTICULAR NEEDS.
The crux of the matter is ensuring that all families have an equal chance to choose a school that’s the best fit for them.
A+ Colorado recently released a report that looks at the history and impact of Denver Public School’s (DPS) unified enrollment system on increasing equitable access to schools. Denver’s unified enrollment system offers one streamlined process to apply to schools outside a student’s assigned school including other neighborhood, magnet, and charter schools.
Inequitable Access to Choice
Prior to the implementation of the unified enrollment system in DPS, there were multiple mechanisms students and families had to navigate to choose a school outside of their neighborhood school. As a result, less than half of students chose a school outside of their assigned-neighborhood school. These opportunities were not equally or equitably spread throughout the city. DPS introduced a unified enrollment system to help ensure that these choice mechanisms were equally accessible to all families.
A recent blog published by the Brown Center at the Brookings Institute reports that even in unified enrollment districts: “By withholding information from certain types of students, particularly those who may seem more difficult to educate, schools may be contributing to a key source of educational inequality.” If unified enrollment systems are to be a key mechanism by which districts address inequities across racial, economic, and therefore, geographic lines, then assuring equal access to information is a critical component of any unified enrollment system.
Communicating the System to Parents
In many ways, it seems that DPS’ choice system prioritizes this. Notably, a 2012 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that of the school districts surveyed, parents in Denver Public Schools were the most likely (83 percent) to have the information they felt they needed to choose a school.
DPS’ unified enrollment system implemented several new systems intentionally trying to address equity concerns in school access. Families from all demographics now participate at high rates in transition grades, shown in our recent report on Unified Enrollment in Denver (p.10). The most notable system-wide change is the one single application and timeline for all schools. This, in addition to 150+ locations where families can access help on their applications and other district efforts, resulted in more than 90 percent of English and non-English speaking families reported positive feelings around the unified enrollment process.
Improving on Shortcomings
There are still shortcomings of Denver’s unified enrollment system.
CHIEF AMONGST THOSE IS THAT LOW-INCOME STUDENTS AND STUDENTS OF COLOR ARE STILL MORE LIKELY TO ATTEND A LOWER-RATED SCHOOL, EVEN THOUGH MORE STUDENTS ARE “TRADING-UP,” TO HIGHER-RATED SCHOOLS.
Further, we still see that students eligible for free and reduced price lunch are less likely to rank a top-rated school as their first choice than students ineligible for free/reduced price lunch. There are many reasons why this may be true, and chief amongst them is that quality schools are not evenly distributed across the city, disproportionately requiring many families of color and low-income families to make a trade-off between proximity and quality.
Clearly, ensuring truly equitable access to all schools is more complex than creating one single application. It requires that districts have great schools for families to choose from and systems to ensure equal and fair access. Districts need to consider how to provide truly equitable access, beyond one unified application, to ensure that unified enrollment systems lead to better outcomes for all students.