Merge the District and Charter Assignment Processes
As the number of charter schools increase, they become an increasingly large factor in public education in Boston. However, each charter school has its own lottery which any child in the city can enter. This makes it difficult for parents who want to apply to BPS and several charter schools. Parents must fill out one application for BPS and another for each charter school. It also means that a district school and one or more charter schools may accept the same child. This creates chaos when school starts and kids don't show up. BPS waits five days after school starts to start admitting kids from the wait list to fill slots left by children who didn't show. It also requires complicated and expensive busing to accommodate students from all over the city who attend charters.
Currently, it is difficult to gauge real demand for seats in district and charter schools throughout the city because it is not currently possible to know how many unique children are applying from any area. Many schools have waiting lists, but we don't know how often the same child is on multiple lists. Finally, charters are often accused of taking the best students as only parents who take the time to find those schools and apply to them individually will have their children admitted. While this last point may not be a fair assessment, it does raise questions of whether apples-to-apples comparisons between district and charter schools are possible.
I propose to integrate all charters in Boston into the BPS assignment system. Out of district charters would still be independently operated, but students would be assigned to them by BPS or by a system run jointly by BPS and charters. Ideally, BPS and potential charter operators would work together to locate new charter and district schools where demand is highest. It’s possible that this change would require new legislation because charter admissions are covered by state law. However, the legislature has shown a willingness to pass education reform measures quickly, so this may not be a significant obstacle.
This has just been done in Denver, where all assignments for district and charter schools for the 2012-13 school year were done through a unified system. To me, the most impressive thing about what is being done in Denver is that it was done on a completely voluntary basis. The district and charter schools worked together to craft a system that was acceptable to everyone. Every charter in the city signed on. With BPS and charter schools already collaborating more in recent years, I believe this is something that could be done here.
In Denver, every charter school has its own system for selecting students. For example, some schools give priority to children of staff and board members or reserve seats for low-income children. All these priorities are preserved in the unified assignment process. As I understand Massachusetts law, charters are required to conduct a lottery to admit students. Siblings are given priority as are students living in the town or region where the school is located. So Boston charters can admit students from anywhere in the state, but give priority to children from Boston. While charters in Denver kept their own assignment policies, I would like to see Boston consider a full merger of the charter and district assignment systems and policies. This would mean that any walk zone priorities, grouping of schools, etc. that is included in Boston's new assignment plan would apply to both district and charter schools.
However, it would not be necessary to adopt a single policy for district and charter schools in order to merge the assignment systems. Following the Denver model would still provide significant benefits to both district and charter schools.
- Streamlining the school choice process for parents who want to apply to both BPS and charter schools.
- Ensuring that district and charter schools are serving similar populations.
- Whatever rules the new school assignment plan uses to allow more children to attend schools close to home would also apply to charters. This would allow even more Boston children to go to school close to home and further reduce transportation costs (this benefit would only apply if both systems and policies were merged).
- Charters would no longer have to take on the administrative task of accepting applications and running a lottery annually.
- Both district and charter schools would have more certainty about who would be attending each fall.
- The system would provide reliable data on parents' preferences for both district and charter schools as families would rank both types of school when registering.
As for the legislation necessary to enable this, I would propose a simple change to existing law that would allow charters and districts to voluntarily sign compacts to merge their assignment systems. The law could require approval from the state Department of Education for each compact. It could also set guidelines that would need to be followed, if desired.
Several years ago, the idea of BPS working with charter schools on an initiative like this might have seemed far-fetched. But last year, BPS and several charters signed a compact covering several areas where the schools agreed to work together. And today, the Gates Foundation awarded a $3.25 million grant to Boston to further this work. Intriguingly, one of the areas mentioned in today's Globe article is to "simplify the process for parents to enroll their children in school." So perhaps this is already underway. The sooner we can end the current system which is difficult for both parents and schools, the better.