Parents in Los Angeles know one thing well: the days of simply sending kids to the school closest to home are long gone.
Nearly half of the students in the L.A. Unified School District choose to enroll somewhere other than their default neighborhood school, according to one analysis — but to make that choice, they have to navigate the district's confusing, balkanized school choice process, with different schools accepting different applications on different timelines.
Superintendent Michelle King has been pushing for a simpler solution: an online "one-stop shop" where parents can search through, apply for, and accept placements for their kids in L.A. Unified's various school choices — all from a single website. Giving parents easier access to these choices, district officials reason, is one way to re-engage families and reverse L.A. Unified's decade-long enrollment decline.
"We have to bring everything together in one space at one time," King said Tuesday, "so all parents can have access and knowledge about what's happening in our district."
This week, L.A. school board members gave their go-ahead to begin building this "unified enrollment system," unanimously approving $16 million to roll out a tool parents can use to search their school options and launch a website where parents will submit applications for a few popular L.A. Unified programs this fall — including for the district's magnet schools. In coming years, the number of programs attached to this "one-stop shop" will grow.
Board members approved the plan on one condition: the district must exclude L.A.'s charter schools from the system until at least June 2020.
Newly-elected board members could easily reverse this prohibition in the future, but the board's last-minute amendment nevertheless underscored their intentions to create a system to help L.A. Unified schools compete with charter schools.
But underneath the familiar anxieties about charter schools, some board members spoke of even more fundamental fears that streamlining the school choice process — even without involving charter schools — could backfire.
Board member George McKenna said he worries in particular about schools that are already struggling to maintain healthy enrollment numbers. During Tuesday's discussions, he said he the "one-stop shop" could reinforce parents' preconceived notions about a struggling school, undercutting any district efforts to improve it.
"The last thing you want to do is close the school," added McKenna, who represents Palms, Baldwin Hills, parts of Mid-City and South L.A. "Now, is the unintended consequence of this wonderful [school choice system] … that those schools get further and further away from existence? They become obsolete? A place to avoid?"
"We may be shooting ourselves in the foot," McKenna also said, "with the consequence that we’re going to inform our public and they’ll know what to choose. But guess what they’re going to choose: they’re going to choose what they don’t like first, then that’s what they’re going to avoid."
The $16 million board members approved Tuesday night will pay for the equivalent of roughly 30 full-time staffers to begin building an online common application that will go live in October.
This fall, parents will use the online application to obtain spots in three programs: dual language and dual immersion schools, permits with transportation (an integration program); and — here's the big one — L.A. Unified's magnet programs, the district's "flagship" school choice program, with more than 67,000 students already enrolled.
As part of the plan, board members approved a three-year, $700,000 contract with SchoolMint, which provides software that will allow the district to launch an online search tool that will allow parents to more easily sift through the various school options near their home. In addition to the magnet, dual language, and permit options, this search tool would incorporate the district's early education centers, Zones of Choice schools and open enrollment options.
In early 2018, the plan calls for the unified enrollment team to develop a system that will allow students and parents to receive one notification in this spring showing them all of the schools where they've been accepted. Families then will be able to send only one response accepting or declining placement in those schools.
Then, in the fall of 2018, the common application will expand to include the district's Schools for Advanced Studies — schools for gifted and talented students — and "application schools," such as Harbor Teacher Prep or the Girls or Boys Academic Leadership Academy.
If the board approves the second phase of the unified enrollment effort — which would require a future vote and another $7 million — district staff could then add L.A. Unified's affiliated charter schools to the common application system.
To be clear, affiliated charters have very close ties to the district's operation and are essentially counted as district-run schools. The inclusion of L.A. Unified's independent charter schools — which are overseen by L.A. Unified but viewed by critics as a drain on the district's enrollment and funding — would be much more politically and logistically complicated.
"If you open this to [independent] charter schools, then you might as well just not do this," warned board member Mónica Ratliff, whose term on the board expires at the end of the month. "This should be about increasing enrollment in district schools."
At this, board president Steve Zimmer, who was defeated for re-election by a candidate backed by charter-backing political groups, jumped in.
"Then let's say that," he suggested. He proposed the amendment to the plan barring independent charter schools from taking part, which board members adopted without serious objection.
His amendment nipped in the bud a dialogue some charter school leaders were interested in starting. Earlier that day, two prominent charter school leaders had sent a letter formally requesting a meeting with King, board members and staff.
"Conversations about improving and unifying our enrollment process should include charter public schools," wrote Emilio Pack, the leader of STEM Prep charter schools, and Cristina de Jesus, CEO of the Green Dot network of charter schools.
But it's also unclear how many charter schools were hoping to be included at this stage. Many of the 228 charter schools in L.A. has its own application process, and some of the leaders of those schools are reticent to hand over control of that process to L.A. Unified.
Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, a parent advocacy organization, said the ideal "one-stop shop" would include every possible option L.A. parents can choose from, including charter schools.
"This is not the first step in a Los Angeles Unified School District attempt to impose an application or enrollment on the charter sector; we have no indication that’s the case," Litt said. "At the same time, I think many charter schools' wariness of putting their enrollment in the hands of LAUSD is born from experience. The past political context exists."
But, Litt said, "I really don't see this issue as falling into that larger framework that gets defaulted to in L.A. of 'good for charters, bad for district; good for district, bad for charters.'"
"Right now, it's not easy for a high-needs family to find a public school in Los Angeles — and most public school families are not looking for a particular governance model," Litt said.
Three-quarters of L.A. Unified students come from families with low enough incomes to qualify them for free or reduced price meals at school. Unified enrollment systems tend to help these high-needs families engage with the overwhelming school choice process, said Neil Dorosin, co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice.
Dorosin, a former school district official in New York City, has helped roll out unified enrollment systems across the country, including in Denver, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. In his experience, "the biggest uptick [in participation] is in the lower socioeconomic brackets who tend not to participate at higher levels when the system is complex and arduous," he said.
Dorosin said it's not clear to him how the district's "one-stop shop" will draw in families who had written off L.A. Unified-run schools — which would be the point of a system designed to boost enrollment. But if the system did succeed for L.A. Unified schools, Dorosin said it's just as likely charter schools would "get it together and make their own common app."
He contended districts ought to create unified enrollment systems because of their inherent benefits. "We don’t do this work because we want to districts to retain kids or because we want kids to go into charter schools," he said. "All that is is a set of results."
Whether charter or district-run, Dorosin said, "when well-informed parents decide to go to one [model] instead of another, what I want as a taxpayer is [for school officials] simply to know that and respond to it wisely."
Superintendent King noted a system that consolidates multiple timelines for application and enrollment has inherent benefits.
But Zimmer, in his second-to-last meeting as board president, pushed the board to realistically label this as a program with both benefits for needy families who need more ready access to school choices — as well as a program meant to help L.A. Unified compete with charter schools.
"The first school of choice, the neighborhood school, must be an excellent school in every neighborhood or else we’re not doing our job as a school district," Zimmer noted.
"But," Zimmer added, "if this [unified enrollment system] is also about growing our enrollment, let’s be honest and let’s codify it—this is an LAUSD program," as opposed to a program that ought to include charter schools.
"Otherwise, it’s not an enrollment growth program."