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Districts around the country looking to common application systems for charters, regular schools

New enrollment systems in Washington, D.C. and Newark, N.J. will allow parents to fill out a single application for regular public schools and charter schools in the cities.

NJ Spotlight shared a new Memorandum of Understanding between Newark’s public schools and 16 of its charter schools, reached last month, which will govern enrollment in the city beginning in the 2014-15 school year. The public schools in Washington D.C. will coordinate with the D.C. charter board to create a common enrollment system there, according to an agreement also reached last month, Education Week reports.

Such systems are becoming increasingly common, as school officials seek to help parents navigate a complicated set of lotteries and applications in cities, like Memphis, where the charter sector is growing and where different entities are running public schools.

Bradley Leon, Shelby County Schools’ chief innovation officer, and Greg Thompson, the executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Center, said earlier this fall that school officials in Memphis had not begun to plan a similar common enrollment system.

Some 17 percent of Newark’s 43,000 public school students attended charter schools in the 2011-12 school year, while some 42 percent of D.C.’s 72,000 public school students attended charter schools those year. That same year, a smaller percentage of Memphis students attended charter schools: some 6,500 of then-Memphis City Schools’ 107,000 students.

But the number of charter schools has continued to increase since then, with both the district and the state-run Achievement School District authorizing new schools. While many schools in Shelby County, including those in the Achievement School District, serve students who are zoned by neighborhood, others require students to apply through individualized systems or lotteries.

The systems in Washington and Newark are modeled after applications in New Orleans and Denver. New Orleans, where more than 80 percent of students attend charter schools, has developed a common system of enrollment that went into place last school year. Denver’s school system also uses a streamlined enrollment system. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at the University of Washington in Seattle, highlighted those enrollment systems earlier this year. 

Newark’s new MOU outlines a set of principles for the enrollment system: transparency, choice, equity, access, community, ease, and reliability. Before, a parent might have to apply for a number of schools all with different application processes and dates.  Now, parents can list their school preferences and the district uses an algorithm that takes into account location, need, and other factors. 

Concerns about equity were one driver of the new systems: In New Orleans, advocates said a common application might encourage some students to apply for schools they may not otherwise have considered. The system also seeks also to address concerns that some charter schools might “cream” students, or somehow enroll students who are easier to educate than those attending regular public schools, and would provide more oversight for admissions processes.

Common enrollment is also meant to address logistical issues that arose in the previous, less coordinated system, which led to situations where, for instance, a student might have a spot reserved in multiple charter schools.

Some charter schools in both Washington and Newark chose not to participate in the compact.

New York City’s school system, the largest in the country, has avoided a common enrollment so far, our colleagues at GothamSchools reported earlier this fall.