Image by OCAL at clker.com.

How can we make education greater in DC? One place to start is by making it easier for families to select great public schools.

Our current system is rich with options. We have a wide variety of schools in the traditional DCPS school system, which offers an out-of-boundary process for any school with available space, and a robust system of charter schools.

By law, each charter school has open admissions and must use a lottery to select students if the school has more applicants than spaces. Unfortunately, the options can be overwhelming, and this fair-sounding system can be very unfair in practice, as well as inefficient. 

Risk-averse parents may enter dozens of lotteries. As a result, each school’s applicant list is inflated by these extra “safety school” applications. The school has no way of knowing which family on their list is serious about enrolling in their school, even after the lottery is conducted. Since every child can only attend one school, then it’s mathematically true that every school will have dozens of phantom applications.

Based on public school choice systems I’ve studied around the country, most of the real sorting happens after the lottery. School operators spend all spring and summer working down their list contacting “next in line” parents once they learn that students accepted through the lottery are not in fact planning to enroll.

How hard they work to inform each replacement child’s family before they move on determines the makeup of the incoming class. School operators can work extra hard to get “desirable” students or even submit to the will of the pushy parent who spends the most time checking in, thereby subverting the intent of open admissions.

Even if the schools do not play games, they must contend with an unstable student count and a miserable months-long process of juggling lists. Who loses in all this? Schools, parents, and most of all students whose parents are not savvy, persistent, or lucky enough to work the system.

Fortunately, the solution is rather simple. Centralize the admissions process so there is a single application that parents fill out, a central (but not exclusive) clearinghouse for information about school options, and a single multi-school lottery that aggregates preferences and gives every family a fair shot at their most- (and second-most, third-most, etc.) preferred school.

Once you have one-stop shopping for the application and notification process, you can realize other benefits, like a highly visible Parent Welcome Center, where parents can turn for information about the schools, much the way our Board of Elections provides voter guides. Parents can be counseled on the options and how to create a rank-ordered list of preferred schools and how to get a good shot at their favorites.

So why don’t we have a system like this? The DCPS out of boundary system is centralized. The charter schools, however, have not really organized themselves to get it done. It’s obvious why they might be hesitant. The one thing they all have in common is that they value their autonomy. But even autonomy-loving charter schools should be able to see the benefits of collective action in this case.