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Letter: Explaining Education Law Center’s role in the universal enrollment effort

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The following letter from a staff attorney at the Education Law Center was sent in response to a commentary by Helen Gym that appeared last week regarding the creation of a universal enrollment system being spearheaded by the Philadelphia School Partnership. The Education Law Center is a member of the working group involved in developing the universal enrollment system.

Dear Helen,

Thank you for offering the chance to explain our role on the universal enrollment working group of the Great Schools Compact. As you know, before the District, various charter schools, the Mayor’s Office, and Pennsylvania Department of Education, and the Archdiocese entered into the Great Schools Compact in 2011, there was very little chance for public comment. ELC supported the general notion of a Compact as a space to collaborate, particularly for the District and charter operators. We also supported the intent to pursue a system of universal public school enrollment, as reflected in the Compact agreement.

Through the hundreds of parents we have represented, we have seen all too well that the current system of more than 80 separate enrollment processes and 80 different deadlines for all the charter schools, in addition to the District’s process for its own schools, has become burdensomely complicated. It has also served to self-select many parents and students out of the charter system and to permit many improper and illegal enrollment policies and practices to go unchecked.

Recently, we documented that, while many individual charter schools do an excellent job welcoming and serving all kinds of students, the charter system in Philadelphia, taken as a whole, is underserving various vulnerable student populations – particularly students with severe disabilities, English language learning students, and students in deep poverty. Meanwhile, barriers to enrollment and practices that serve to push out students who are often perceived as more challenging to serve are not isolated to charter schools. Improving public school enrollment is essential.

At the time of the signing of the Compact, we were concerned about the inclusion of private sectarian schools as members of the Compact. We initially raised these concerns via testimony to the SRC in November 2011, just before the Compact was first signed.

In late 2012, we learned that a “working group” was being formed by the Compact to explore and make recommendations about a possible system of universal enrollment (UE). We contacted the Compact and requested a seat on the working group as longtime advocates for fair and legally compliant public school enrollment practices. We were subsequently invited to join the working group. However, ELC is not a member of the actual Great Schools Compact, and we have not been involved in discussions regarding universal enrollment that occur in that setting.

Upon joining the working group, we signed an agreement to respect the confidentiality of the discussions. It is our understanding that this agreement was designed to ensure that the working group itself was a safe place for candid conversation, but does not prevent us from discussing publicly any of the issues being explored by the working group or expressing our opinions about UE. In February, we hosted a public forum at Temple University with Education Voters and the Philadelphia School Partnership to explain the basic concepts of UE, what the working group was working on, and to solicit feedback. We have also independently reached out to advocates in New Orleans and Denver who have shared with us that, although their systems are far from perfect, they have been an improvement on the free-for-all system that preceded it and that we currently have in Philadelphia.

ELC’s role on the working group is similar to other participants. We have all been working to learn about systems of universal enrollment, discuss what might work best in Philadelphia, and reach a joint set of recommendations for members of the Compact to consider. In addition, as legal advocates and representatives of the class of students established in the LeGare settlement, which mandates the rules the District must follow with respect to students with disabilities and English language learners who seek enrollment in the School District’s special admission schools, ELC has also viewed our role as advocating for a system that protects vulnerable student populations. Our perception has been that creating a system that is simple and more equitable is a priority for all members of the working group.

Within the working group, we have frequently expressed our strong opposition to the possibility of this system being privately operated, as well as to possible inclusion of the Archdiocesan schools. In addition to explaining the numerous legal obstacles to such a system, we have expressed our concern that both of these approaches would unnecessarily complicate the system and erode the public’s trust in its validity. These issues are still undecided, and we look forward to continued discussions both within the working group and in the public sphere. ELC continues to believe that a universal public school enrollment system maintained and controlled by a publicly accountable entity could help to ensure that all public schools in Philadelphia are welcoming to all kinds of students.

We do not always agree, but the working group has been collaborative and welcoming of divergent perspectives. It has been encouraging to see cooperation and collaboration between charters and the District on how to improve access. As we progress toward making recommendations to the Compact, greater transparency and public input is absolutely essential for ensuring that changes to school enrollment will increase equity and access. For this reason we welcome the Notebook’s exploration of both the issues and the process.

David Lapp
Staff Attorney, Education Law Center