false choice

Early school choice deadlines mean affluent parents often get first shot at coveted schools, new study shows

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Charity, a Boston mother, had a number of schools in mind for her young daughter. But there was a problem: by the time she registered for the city’s admissions system, the spots in every one of them were taken.

The school she ended up with, she said, was “just a huge headache because it doesn’t coincide with my time. I’m late for work every day.” When she complained to district officials, she said, “It was like, ‘There’s nothing that we can do.’”

Because her daughter had recently moved from out of state, Charity started the registration process in the summer, several months after the deadline for the first round of admissions.

Her story is not a one-off, according to new research.

It finds that early registration deadlines for Boston’s school choice program tended to trip up black, Hispanic, and low-income families. That’s in part because they move more frequently; that in turn means they apply later and get less of a chance to pick from the most coveted and high-achieving district schools.

The result ends up undermining one goal of these choice systems, which have been promoted across the country as a way to ensure disadvantaged students aren’t trapped in struggling schools.  

“The families who may stand to benefit most from school choice also likely experience the greatest challenges in taking full advantage of it,” conclude study authors Kelley Fong of Harvard and Sarah Faude of Northeastern University.

The research, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Sociology of Education, focuses on Boston Public Schools, which has an extensive system of school choice. Families rank their preferences, and an algorithm assigns students to schools. There are no default neighborhood schools, so all students who want seats in district schools must participate. (Most charter schools are not included.)

Ideally, families looking for a seat at a school in the fall register in January, allowing them to participate in the choice system’s first round. Those students get the initial shot at the city’s most popular schools.

The school system then runs a second, third, and fourth round of that system. Students who register in the summer, after the process is formally complete, get assigned last based on what schools have seats available.

For kindergarteners, less than two-thirds of families go through the first round, and 12 percent register in the summer, the study finds, using data from 2014 to 2016. But those numbers vary substantially by student group.

Source: “Timing Is Everything: Late Registration and Stratified Access to School Choice.” Graphic: Sam Park

Eighty-three percent of white students went through round one, compared to just 60 percent of Hispanic students and 53 percent of black students. Similar disparities existed between students coming from wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

Those gaps mean that some students miss their shot at schools that are highly rated or in demand. Of 72 schools offering general education kindergarten, 50 were filled up after the first round in the most recent school year. Those also tended to be higher-achieving schools.

“Of the schools without waitlists by the summer-time, none were in the top test score quartile of district schools,” according to the study.

Why do families participate in the choice system late? To find out, researchers surveyed well over 1,000 late-registering families and interviewed about 30 of them. (An important caveat: those who responded to the survey and an interview request may not be representative of all families who registered late.)

In the survey, most said they were late because of a recent move into the city, making it difficult or impossible to meet the registration deadline.

A notable share of families in this study also said they weren’t aware of the registration gap or didn’t know it mattered; were counting on or considering alternatives to the district schools; or simply had too much going on. A small share — around 5 percent of families — said it was because they didn’t feel strongly about choosing a school.

There’s also some evidence that the multiple systems of enrollment among the city’s district and charter schools lead to confusion. (Although a number of districts have a common enrollment system, Boston doesn’t, despite a recent effort to put one in place.)

One parent described applying for a charter school lottery early because she understood that there were hard deadlines for entering a charter school. But she didn’t apply to the district schools until after the first round had ended, thinking one she wanted would be available when she needed it.

“Parents often oriented their choice efforts around other school timelines, looking to BPS only later when other options were unavailable or no longer desired,” the researchers write. “Unfortunately, by then, the BPS schools they wanted often had no seats remaining.”

This research can’t quantify what these disparities mean for student learning. But another recent study found the type of students who stood to gain the most from Boston’s high-performing charter schools were also the least likely to enroll. (Interestingly, the same phenomenon has been observed in the Head Start pre-kindergarten program.)

Other cities have tried to deal with this enrollment problem. After a 2013 report showed that late-registering students were being concentrated in struggling New York City high schools, district officials set aside additional seats in other schools. In Denver, the district has taken similar approach and recently increased the number of seats it holds for late-arriving students.

“The Boston Public Schools appreciates the research on this important topic, as we have made some shifts to support increased outreach to our most marginalized families,” a spokesperson for the district said in a statement. “We are carefully evaluating the study’s findings to determine if there are additional ways we can improve our registration process to make it more accessible to families.”

The researchers said they worked closely with Boston Public Schools administrators, who first raised the concern about late registrants to the study’s authors and provided data to make the analysis possible. Since 2016, the district has made some modest steps to improve the process, like creating “pop-up” registration centers in neighborhoods with high rates of late entry.

But the study notes one reason the school system might be discouraged from changing its system: Boston advertises that 77 percent of kindergarteners who go through the first application round get one of their first three school choices.

“Late registrant families registering earlier in substantial numbers would compromise this high ‘success’ rate,” the research says.

counterpoint

Some Asian American groups have backed the SHSAT, but this one says the exam should go

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School is one of the city's most sought-after specialized high schools.

In the fight to integrate New York City’s coveted specialized high schools, one source of opposition has stood out.

Asian parents and alumni have waved signs at City Hall, heckled education leaders at town halls, and marched in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to eliminate the test that serves as the sole entrance criteria for the elite schools.

That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families is calling for the test to be nixed in favor of an admissions system that weighs multiple factors, releasing a report on Tuesday that attempts to bring nuance to a debate that has often played out in sound bites.

“We believe that current admissions processes to specialized high schools contribute to the problems of segregation and inequity in NYC public schools,” the advocacy organization’s report notes.

Specialized high schools enroll a disproportionate share of Asian students. Many have argued that the mayor’s plan, which aims to enroll more black and Hispanic students in the schools, pits one community of color against others. Only about 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, even though those students comprise about 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The Coalition’s report offers a counter-narrative to the debate, highlighting that many Asian organizations have long called for admissions changes at the specialized high schools and arguing that Asian students would benefit from an overhaul.

But the organization stops short of endorsing de Blasio’s proposal, blasting his administration for failing to include the Asian community in its development or rollout. (One of the coalition’s co-directors is a mayoral appointee to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy.)  

“We remain highly critical of the processes that he and the Department of Education have taken in crafting and releasing those proposals to the public,” the report says.

An education department spokesman said the city looks forward to working with the coalition to eliminate the test, and said the city is presenting its plan to every community school district.

The report comes as parents are considering suing over the city’s diversity efforts and supporters of the test have hired a lobbyist to fight the potential changes.

The coalition’s stance also highlights the steep challenge de Blasio faces as he gears up to lobby state lawmakers to scrap the entrance exam, which is currently required by state law. Though Democrats managed to gain control of the Senate in the latest election, the issue doesn’t have a clear party line — and some of the mayor’s natural allies have expressed doubt, or even backed away from the mayor’s proposal.

Read the full report here

By the numbers

Enrollment is up in Tennessee’s largest school district for second straight year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

After several years of steady decline, Shelby County Schools is continuing an upward trend in student enrollment.

About 111,600 students attend schools in Tennessee’s largest district, up about 2 percent from last year and higher than projected enrollment, according to district numbers.

That includes about 15,300 students enrolled in charter schools overseen by the local district, who now make up about 13.5 percent, a slight uptick from last year.

The increase could signal a growing trust in public school options in Memphis and that recruitment and early registration efforts are continuing to pay off. Last year was the first year the Memphis district gained students since six suburbs exited the district to create their own school systems with about 34,000 students.

However, enrollment in the state’s district for low-performing schools dipped for the second year in a row to 10,622 students. The Achievement School District, which mostly operates in Memphis, has lost about 2,000 students since 2016 as schools have closed and money for school improvement efforts has dropped off.

Note: The numbers are taken from each district’s attendance on the 20th day of school, which leaders use to determine any staffing adjustments to match a school’s student population.

Sharon Griffin, the Achievement School District’s chief, told Chalkbeat that she focused her efforts this semester on restarting the district’s relationship with the neighborhoods its serves, and that she is hopeful to see gains in enrollment throughout the year.

“Most of our schools have met their projected enrollment, but we have one or two elementaries that are struggling,” Griffin said. “Part of that is due to the fact that new charter schools and options that have opened up in neighborhoods we’re in, where there’s not enough kids in the neighborhood.”

Five charters schools opened this year as five others — a mix of district-run and charter schools — closed.

Notably, Shelby County Schools’ charter sector is growing faster than the district. The number of Memphis students attending charter schools overseen by the district increased 5.8 percent this year, while enrollment in district-run schools increased about 2 percent. Shelby County Schools did not provide a statement or an official for comment.

Nationally, the average charter school enrollment has increased from 1 to 6 percent of students between 2000 and 2015, according to federal data. That year, Tennessee charter schools enrolled 3 percent of students.

In response, the local district has looked to charter schools for recruitment strategies in an increasingly competitive environment. Over the summer, Shelby County Schools doubled down on recruitment and registration efforts by sending officials to grocery stores, libraries, summer camps, the Memphis Zoo and community centers — and has even hosted block parties throughout the city. The district also opened its online application two months earlier than last year to encourage parents to register sooner.

Those efforts resulted in 70 percent of expected students to register for school two weeks before school, which was double from the previous year.