This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When the School Reform Commission meets Monday for its monthly public strategy session, its goal will be to discuss the pros and cons of an unprecedented proposal: unifying the enrollment process for Philadelphia’s public, charter, and parochial schools.
But behind the scenes, a lengthy process involving a working group that included multiple stakeholders appears to have created little consensus over how this “universal enrollment” system might work, who should be in it, and even whether one should exist at all.
“There’s consensus that there’s a problem,” said David Lapp of the Education Law Center, a working group member. “We should improve on having over 80 different systems for how kids enroll in school.”
However, Lapp said, there has been no consensus on “the big [questions], who would run it and who would participate in it.”
As proposed by the increasingly influential Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) in a briefing at City Council last fall, a universal enrollment system would provide a single application process for all District schools, some (or possibly all) charter schools, and, potentially, tuition-based Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The idea was developed by a working group created by the Great Schools Compact, a committee of local school leaders led by the mayor’s office and managed by PSP, a privately funded nonprofit group that raises and distributes money to schools to replicate and improve successful models. The working group included school operators, city officials, student advocates like Lapp, and District staff.
Supporters say a universal system could reduce the confusion and unequal access created by the city’s tangle of application procedures and deadlines.
But working group members and critics alike also cite numerous and wide-ranging concerns about governance, oversight, access to private student data, the impact of school marketing and self-promotion, the legality of the archdiocese’s participation, and the system’s potential to effectively reduce parent choice.
“Changes to enrollment need to happen, but not all changes to enrollment are created equal,” said Susan Gobreski of Education Voters Pennsylvania, who was not a member of the working group.
District officials remain noncommittal, but interested. They say it would be possible to implement a new system in time for the 2015-16 school year.
“We are open to any innovation that will make the enrollment process easier for the students and families we serve,” said District spokesperson Deirdre Darragh, via email. “We are definitely in a ‘learn more mode.’”
Likewise, city officials are uncertain as to whether such a system has the necessary support from either parents or school operators.
“I have no interest or time for solving a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Lori Shorr, head of the mayor’s office of education. “Do all parents’ kids have equal access to all schools? If the answer is ‘yes,’ there are probably better things for us to do. …
“It also comes down to whether the systems really want this. Does the District really want this? Does the archdiocese really want this? Can they legally be involved, and are there enough charters [who will participate]?”
A lot of talk, but little agreement
Enrollment is, in many ways, the operational heart of any public education system, determining not just where the students go, but where the money goes.
And although elements of the changes proposed for Philadelphia have been tried elsewhere, a fully unified public/charter/parochial enrollment system would be unprecedented.
“They’re exploring radical changes, way beyond what anybody in any other part of this country has done,” said Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education.
The basic outline of the proposed system hasn’t changed much since PSP first briefed Council on the idea. Parents would submit a list of about five schools for their child, perhaps mixing District, charter and parochial, and rank them in order of preference. Computers would use complex algorithms to crunch a wide range of student and school data, and the system — probably run by an outside contractor — would respond with a single assignment.
“Our parents and our schools are used to seeing, ‘I got into these four schools, now I get to decide,’” said Marc Mannella, founder of KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools, a working-group member and “big supporter” of universal enrollment. “It’s going to require a big change.”
Under a universal system, selective schools – which rank students based on test scores and other records, and sometimes require interviews or auditions – would still be able to do so, said Neil Dorosin, head of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice (IIPSC), who staffed the Compact’s working group.
But schools that use a lottery – which would include all charters – would hand that responsibility over to the system, Dorosin said. “In essence, the program runs the lottery,” he said.
Mannella, whose organization operates four schools and hopes to add more, said he supports the concept in part because it would eliminate the barriers created by multiple application procedures. “It’s an equity issue,” he said. “The way it’s set up now, with some charter schools, you have to be incredibly savvy and knowledgeable … to gain access.”
Likewise, Scott Gordon, head of Mastery Charter Schools, which runs 10 schools in the city, says the system would level the playing field for everyone. “Parents and children should have choice – and everyone should have equal access to great schools. It’s that simple.”
But Lawrence Jones, a working group member and chair of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which represents many smaller and independent charters, said he thinks a new charter office – overseen by the SRC, not the District – would be a better and cheaper way to untangle enrollment, hold charters accountable, and address issues of equity and access.
“I’m not pooh-poohing the idea,” said Jones, who is also the head of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School. “It may be a great opportunity, but in my mind there are so many bigger fish to fry.”
A competitive environment
Dorosin says it should be no surprise that the issue is complex and sometimes contentious. The enrollment process, he said, distributes both students and dollars – and nobody wants to give up a competitive advantage.
“You’re in an environment where you’re competing for children to go to your school. And the number of kids that you get drives the budget,” Dorosin said. “To put autonomy over admissions in someone else’s hands – charters fought long and hard for that autonomy. Why give it back?”
The same goes for the District itself, he said. "Why would a district that is being absolutely crushed with budget problems … move into a situation that might make it easier for kids to choose schools that are not District schools?”
The difference is that although all District schools would be required to participate, charters will probably have a choice.
Both Shorr and Dorosin said their preference is to allow charters to opt into a universal system.
“Our goal is to design something that’s good enough that everyone wants to participate,” Dorosin said.
Shorr said, “I can’t imagine we can have a system where we mandate that they participate.”
In Denver, organizers have managed to get all charters to participate in a universal enrollment process.
But in New Orleans, Dorosin said, some don’t – including “some of the most popular and high-achieving,” he said. “I think everyone knows that if you’re not joining, it’s because you’re enjoying handpicking your kids.”
Gym says the incentive to opt out is obvious: You recruit who you want, how you want, and ensure that the more challenging students end up in somebody else’s school.
Gobreski, too, worries about the impact of that kind of system on Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools. “If the charter part is voluntary, I have real questions about what kind of system you’re creating,” she said.
Catholic schools: The great unknown
Hovering around the entire conversation is yet another unanswered question: Can Catholic schools take part?
Working group members say they haven’t reached a definitive answer, and none appears imminent.
KIPP’s Mannella said that the working group raised concerns but didn’t get answers.
“Once somebody tells me it’s legal, I’m prepared to wrap my head around whether it’s a good idea,” he said. “This question is asked often in meetings … and I don’t feel like I have a satisfactory answer.”
Dorosin said the only precedent for including parochial schools in a public enrollment system is in New Orleans, where a voucher-style scholarship program pays students’ tuition.
Pennsylvania offers some taxpayer-funded scholarships that can be used at parochial schools, funded through state corporate tax deductions. But ELC’s Lapp says a full-scale voucher program would likely be illegal in Pennsylvania. The archdiocese has long lobbied for vouchers and tuition supports, but Lapp said church officials didn’t bring the issue up in working group meetings.
“No one has expressed a desire for a system of vouchers,” Lapp said. “We have expressed concerns that [including parochial schools in universal enrollment] would do just that … and that’s another reason we think it’s a bad idea.”
Archdiocesan officials did not respond to multiple requests from the Notebook for comment.
Dorosin sees potential advantages to including Catholic schools. “From a theoretical standpoint, the more the merrier,” Dorosin said. “The fewer instances in which one family is getting offers from multiple schools, the better.”
And although Shorr said that the city is “being aggressive” in seeking legal opinions, she doesn’t expect a definitive decision anytime soon.
“I’ve talked to other lawyers who say it definitely is legal,” said Shorr, speaking about Archdiocesan participation. “Each of the operators might have to find out what their lawyers say. … When it comes to things like that, we’re looking at years.”
Up next: Public forums and ‘private conversations’
Beyond the big questions of governance and participation are still more thorny issues.
Among the concerns, for example, is that charter schools with healthy marketing budgets could use advertising and outreach to drive up demand right before the application deadline. “Demand for seats does not necessarily indicate quality seats,” Lapp said. “Especially when demand is driven by perceptions of exclusivity, or realities of exclusivity.”
Dorosin agrees that this is a potential problem.
“I know that in New Orleans, for example, there are schools that we know are not good schools but that still fill up each year,” he said. “Do we want to do anything about that? They haven’t answered that question there yet, and David [Lapp] is asking the same question.”
Another concern is whether a universal enrollment system would expand or restrict families’ choices.
“If there’s some sort of policy that limits you to five choices, then that could be misleading – and possibly illegal,” said Gobreski. “Right now, you have … an unlimited amount of charter choices.”
Still another doubt is whether universal enrollment would, as some supporters argue, help keep the system honest.
Dorosin argues passionately that it will. “It’s pretty clear that when you have 80 charter schools, not all of them follow the published rules,” he said. “That goes away,” at least for those charters that opt into the system, he said.
Jones, however, counters that such issues would be better handled by a well-staffed charter school office – and wouldn’t be solved by universal enrollment.
“Schools that have ridiculous applications — a strong charter school office sees it and deals with it,” Jones said. “Fraud and inappropriate conduct is something that universal enrollment does not deal with. A strong charter school office would.”
And still more questions surround the protection of student data, contractor oversight, charter enrollment caps, and the fairness and transparency of the process that has developed and promoted the entire idea.
With all these issues and constituencies in play, it is perhaps no surprise that the working group has lost steam.
“We’re feeling like we’re a little bit stuck in limbo — not sure where it’s going,” said Lapp. “Before anything happens, we really need to make sure we engage in public conversations about it.”
That’s frustrating to some. “I don’t have a good answer as to why there’s a slowdown,” said Mastery’s Gordon. “This is important. We have lots of details to work out [but] this is a solvable challenge.”
Dorosin said that some of the next moves will have to be quiet ones.
“We’ve paused while we figure out how to continue,” he said, “And there’s no question we’re gong to continue. … We’re looking at re-engaging stakeholders with, you could say, more private conversations, just to get away from the politics of it.”
But if the District wants to build faith in the process, Gym said, a public conversation is long overdue.
“This conversation’s been going on for more than a year, in private, with operators who want the most extreme version,” she said. “If the District wants to gain the trust of parents, they need to acknowledge that.”
Monday’s meeting is the first time that there has been any public invitation or official airing of what has been going on. Advocates like Gobreski and Lapp, who both are also city parents, hope that the dialogue continues.
“What we would want to see is a longer-term, very public process that doesn’t start with, ‘here’s the solution,’” Gobreski said.
Shorr urged parents to come to Monday’s meeting and engage on the subject. “We need to know if this is going to help you with your child,” she said, “or not.”