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Common Lotteries and the Future of Urban Public Education

New common enrollment systems permit families to select traditional public schools and charters using a single application system that matches as many students as possible to their preferred schools. They're making public school choice systems work better for both students and schools. Writing in the Washington Post Magazine, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch explores the common enrollment concept, and how it's changing the urban public school landscape, through the experiences of two District of Columbia families.

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On a snowy December Saturday in 2017, Crystal and Sean Goliday and their young son, Noah, were among some 5,000 District of Columbia families streaming into the D.C. Armory next to RFK Stadium. Inside, staff from nearly all of the city’s 236 charter and traditional public schools were pitching their schools to passersby from long rows of brightly decorated, swag-filled booths set up on the armory’s hardwood floor.

At EdFest, Washington’s citywide school fair and a modern-day education bazaar that would have been hard to contemplate a generation ago, high schools even had their cheerleaders out. Coaches held up uniforms to entice recruits. The Golidays were excited but anxious as they moved through the crowds. Crystal owned a townhouse in suburban Upper Marlboro, Md., when she and Sean met, but they wanted to raise a family in the city, in a predominantly African American neighborhood where their investment in a home would grow. So they bought a small, 70-year-old rowhouse in the Deanwood neighborhood, just over the Anacostia River from RFK.

They didn’t want their low-performing neighborhood school for Noah, who would be starting preschool eight months after EdFest, but they hoped to stay in Ward 7 rather than return to the suburbs or pay for private school. They were looking for other public options. In Washington, students could attend any traditional public school with open spots, and nearly half the city’s public school population attended charter schools, publicly funded but privately operated.

Crystal and Sean tried to read the body language of representatives of popular schools as they worked their way up and down the aisles at EdFest. “We’ll never get in here,” Crystal sighed, sizing up the crowd at the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School booth, a Chinese-English immersion program. Like many of the city’s more affluent families, Crystal was drawn to specialized schools such as Yu Ying.

After exchanging pleasantries with the principal of Cleveland Elementary, a Spanish-English bilingual school run by D.C. Public Schools, the city’s traditional school district, Crystal asked, “Can you tell me, honestly, our chances?”

“Really, honestly, you have to just try the lottery,” the principal responded.

“We’re concerned that we’ll be stuck with the neighborhood school,” Sean told me a short time later, as he darted after Noah. He liked a high-achieving school on Capitol Hill that uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy.

“Sean and I both went to city public schools,” Crystal said. “We want Noah to be challenged.” The Golidays were also drawn to schools that were racially and socioeconomically diverse. They didn’t want Noah to be among the only African American students in his school.

Taylor Johnson, an eighth-grader at Democracy Prep Congress Heights Public Charter School, had different priorities at EdFest. A fourth-generation Washingtonian, she had grown up in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and father and twin brother, Todd, in the Southeast Washington neighborhood of Congress Heights, just a few blocks from Democracy Prep. The following school year, 2018-19, she and Todd, who goes by T.J., would be in high school.

Their mother, Kelli Johnson, graduated from nearby Ballou High School and was the first in her extended family to earn a college degree. Taylor, partial to jeans, sneakers and big earrings, had aspirations beyond high school. “I want to go to college,” she told me. “Be a teacher or do cosmetology.” Ballou had a cosmetology program, but it was among the lowest-rated schools in the city, and Taylor wasn’t impressed when she visited. “People were playing in class, teachers weren’t teaching,” she said.

Taylor and her brother lived in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. A week after I visited Democracy Prep last year, a Ballou student was fatally shot in the middle of the afternoon across the street from Taylor’s school. “I’ve asked to go somewhere where I know I’m safe,” the 14-year-old told me.

Her parents didn’t need any convincing. To the Johnsons, that meant going to high school on the other side of the Anacostia River. At EdFest, Taylor bypassed Ballou, Anacostia High School, Friendship Tech Prep and other Ward 7 and 8 schools. It was the pitches by McKinley Tech, KIPP DC College Prep, E.L. Haynes and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown that she wanted to hear.

Public school choice has expanded steadily in the nation’s cities since the first magnet schools emerged nearly five decades ago as a way to desegregate public school systems voluntarily, and especially since the start of charter schooling in the early 1990s. But in Washington and the rest of the country, taking advantage of expanding school options traditionally meant navigating myriad application timelines and deadlines without information to make clear comparisons. It meant oversubscribed schools pulling names out of paper bags, families pitching tents on sidewalks — or paying others to camp out for them — to get to the front of wait-list lines, and schools cherry-picking applicants to get the most attractive students: a system favoring the well-educated, the wealthy and the well-connected.

For schools, the system made planning almost impossible. Many students were admitted to multiple schools but didn’t let schools know their plans — causing thousands of wait-listed students to change schools through September and early October, leaving schools guessing about revenue and staffing, and disrupting instruction. Now, the Johnsons and the Golidays were following a very different route. Since the 2014-15 school year, the District’s 93,000 public school students have selected traditional public schools and charters through a single centralized application process powered by a computer program that matches as many students as possible to their top choices.

Launched by then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray and run by a unit in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education called My School DC, the common enrollment system starts with schools submitting lists of open spots. Students or parents set up accounts on the My School DC site and rank their preferences, applying to as many as a dozen schools after searching with a My School DC search engine, via fairs like EdFest, or by attending public school open houses.

My School DC gives students random lottery numbers. Then an algorithm works to place as many students as possible in the schools they want, giving those with better lottery numbers an edge when schools are oversubscribed. Students are automatically placed on the wait lists of schools they’ve ranked but aren’t matched with, including schools higher on their lists than schools they are matched with. And My School DC matches wait-listed students as spots become available. Parents and students can track their standing online.

Every student in the city is guaranteed a spot in a neighborhood DCPS school. Today, though, with families able to move beyond neighborhood school boundaries, only 27 percent of Washington’s public school students take that option.

Because My School DC’s software places students, the system levels the playing field for families who lack political connections or the time and resources to stand in lines, lobby school principals and complete scores of applications. The algorithm rewards the ranking of schools in students’ true preference orders, removing any advantage of attempts to game the system. And a common online application process eliminates multiple deadlines, lost paperwork and the cost to schools of hiring people to input thousands of paper applications.

The common enrollment system is an important window into Washington’s changing educational landscape — generating a trove of information about school preferences that is shaping city leaders’ thinking about what kind of schools to create and where to put them. It is also making public education more transparent for families, and bringing new competitive energy to both traditional public schools and charters, even as it has led the two types of schools to work together in mutually beneficial ways. And yet, for all its success, My School DC has suggested that there are limits to what school choice can accomplish — especially as an antidote to the racial and socioeconomic segregation that plagues education systems nationwide.

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Photo courtesy of Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post.