Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.

The current application process for DC’s charter and non-charter public schools is a chaotic mess that confuses parents and hurts education for students. DC could fix many problems by creating a centralized lottery process for all public schools, charter and non-charter.

Steve Glazerman called for a centralized application for charter schools in 2010. Since then, DC Public Schools (DCPS) instituted a common application for the District’s specialized high schools.

This is a great step, but it could go a lot further to include charter schools and traditional neighborhood schools at all grades. It wouldn’t be hard; the company that operates whose software enables the centralized application for DCPS application-only high schools is currently implementing a centralized application for charters and non-charters in Denver.

District officials generally agree. Scheherazade Salimi, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Education, says that “a common application is something the Deputy Mayor would like to explore in partnership with DCPS and [the Public Charter School Board].”

In a centralized application, parents would select several schools, rank-ordered by preference. They would select charters and non-charters, and could conceivably select up to 12, 15 or 20 schools.

A single lottery would select applicants one by one, and assign each to the first school on his or her list with an open slot. This is similar to how many colleges assign dorm rooms, for instance.

This type of centralized application would have many benefits over the current system.

Parents are more likely to get into their top choice schools.

When parents apply to schools now, they apply for DCPS schools using a centralized application, and apply to each charter school separately. Pre-K programs have lotteries for all children, while students in 1st grade and older enter lotteries only for out-of-boundary DCPS schools.

As a result, one applicant in Capitol Hill could be waitlisted at a nearby charter that was their top choice and accepted into a Columbia Heights charter that was their 2nd choice, while a Columbia Heights family that preferred the nearby charter could be waitlisted there but accepted to the Capitol Hill charter school.

The result is that neither child can go to his or her top choice charter, and both families are making unnecessary drives to get the kids to school.

Spots at competitive schools won’t be locked up by parents who don’t plan to send kids there.

Schools hold their lotteries in the spring for spots in the fall. In the current system, if a child gets accepted to multiple charter schools and/or an out-of-boundary DCPS school, parents might tell each school that the child will attend in the fall.

When they decide which school to attend, they inform the schools at some point in the summer or they just don’t show up for the schools they didn’t select. There’s no deposit or penalty, so they don’t pay a cost for this, but other families lose out who might have taken the slot but had to make a decision earlier to go elsehwere.

Some parents do this to give themselves more time to research the schools; some want to wait until school starts to assess the facilities of charter schools that were still preparing their facilities in the spring.

When a student attending an out-of-boundary DCPS school gets into a different out-of-boundary DCPS school, the principal of the first school “releases” the student before they can secure their spot into the new school. Charter schools have no such process.

Squatting on multiple school slots is unfair to everybody. When children accepted through the lottery don’t show up in the fall, principals have to scramble to contact any remaining applicants on their wait list. Squatting also leads to the next problem.

Principals could provide better estimates of enrollment for funding purposes.

One of the most common grievances from charter advocates is that DCPS principals overestimate their enrollment to receive extra funding.

DCPS schools project fall enrollment in the spring and these projections determine funding for the following year. If the actual enrollment is lower, DCPS’ budget doesn’t shrink. But charter schools receive funding quarterly based on their actual enrollment. If a charter school’s enrollment declines, it loses money.

Some principals might be doing this on purpose, but it’s also difficult for DCPS principals to accurately estimate enrollment for the following fall when applicants hold a spot at their school while they spend the summer deciding whether to attend charter schools.

A centralized application would eliminate much of this problem. Each school, DCPS and charter, would know that every child on its list isn’t going to suddenly go elsewhere in the DC system. They could go to private school or move to another jurisdiction, but that applies to a smaller number of children.

Charter principals wouldn’t be able to “skim the cream.”

Charter school critics often complain that charter school principals find ways to weed out students during enrollment who may be harder to educate. The lottery initially fills all charter school slots randomly, but as parents of children who got in on the lottery tell the school that they won’t be taking the slot, the charter itself contacts applicants off of their wait list.

There are opportunities for principals to intentially or unintentionally abuse this system. For example, principals can give an applicant more or less time to respond and claim the slot before they move on to the next child. They might give more “desirable” children more time than others.

A charter school in New York was put on probation last year for weeding out applicants in the enrollment process. While there hasn’t been a specific accusation like this against any DC charter school, a centralized application system could remove this because students would be assigned to a single school.

We would have data on capacity needs at all grades, especially pre-K.

District officials say that DC has achieved universal pre-K, but the city’s auditor of pre-K capacity disagrees. Who is right? We won’t know until we have data on the actual demand for pre-K.

A centralized application for pre-K, including all of the pre-K programs, would generate this data. It would then be easy to compare the number of total children applying against the number of public pre-K slots.

The data wouldn’t be perfect, as some parents apply to DCPS pre-K programs as a backup to their private pre-K applications, while other parents miss the pre-K lottery (in February) but still want to send their children to pre-K. But it would be far better than the current audit, which effectively measures nothing.

All students would start school on time together.

One of the unintended consequences of the plethora of charter school choices is that schools don’t really know who will show up for school in September. This is largely due to parents holding spots through the summer for multiple schools but only sending their kids to one school.

The result is that classroom compositions are in flux throughout September and October as principals contact students off the wait list to fill suddenly vacated spots. This is challenging for teachers and ultimately hurts students’ education.

District education officials and the State Board of Education can start pushing toward a single lottery right away. An education committee in the Council, as many have suggested, could also help move this forward.