Editorial: Make school choice work for Detroit parents

The Detroit News

Starting Friday, Detroit families will have a new resource to help them choose a school for their children. Given the expansion of school choice in the city and the wide array of schools parents can select from, a move toward a common enrollment system could simplify — and stabilize — the process.

That’s the hope, anyway. Enroll Detroit, which will take applications through the month of April, aims to ease the enrollment process by giving parents one form to fill out. It’s more complicated now, with varying deadlines and forms, and that’s contributed to much fluctuation in school enrollment.

“Schools have a hard time planning,” says Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. The group is spearheading the effort, and it’s a product of nearly three years of planning.

Unfortunately, Detroit Public Schools is not participating yet, which means about half the city’s schools won’t be available to parents through the new system. That’s an odd choice for a district in desperate need of students.

Student transfers in Detroit occur at a much higher rate than the rest of the state, says Armen Hratchian, vice president of K-12 programs for Excellent Schools Detroit.

By helping parents make educated decisions early and giving them a streamlined way to select schools of their choice, Enroll Detroit could reduce the number of students bouncing from school to school.

Enroll Detroit will initially be available only to families looking for kindergarten or ninth grade seats in the fall of 2016. It will offer an enrollment website and six centers around the city to help parents fill out forms and make decisions about rating schools. It is fully funded by private donations.

“Each year there are more than 10,000 families in Detroit looking for transition grade placements, seats in kindergarten or ninth grade, and these are huge decisions for families and these placements ultimately affect the overall stability of schools across the city,” says Varner.

Open to all schools in the city, Enroll Detroit will run a common lottery in May. Students will be matched to schools according to how parents have ranked schools and school priorities. Varner notes families currently have to navigate through more than 50 different enrollment calendars and applications.

There are roughly 230 schools in Detroit, including traditional public schools and charter schools. More than half of Detroit students attend charters. As of last week, Varner says “north of 100 schools” had agreed to participate in the new system.

About 60 percent of Detroit families reported exercising choice in 2014. Yet, according to Hratchian, 38 percent say they are confused about which schools their child is eligible to attend, and 26 percent struggle to meet the different application deadlines. Those are concerns that Enroll Detroit plans to address.

Excellent Schools Detroit, along with other groups, including the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, backed an independent analysis in 2014 that recommended a simplified enrollment process.

Common enrollment systems seem to be working well in other cities where they’ve been implemented, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. Simplifying enrollment doesn’t solve all problems, however, including transportation. That’s a big issue in Detroit, where some parents spend several hours getting their children to school every day.

And while Dan Quisenberry, president of MAPSA, initially worked with Varner on organizing Enroll Detroit, he’s been left out of recent discussions. In addition, Quisenberry thinks some charters will be skeptical about getting involved.

Common enrollment isn’t a panacea for Detroit’s education problems, but it’s worth a shot. As long as parents remain the drivers of where their children go to school, Enroll Detroit holds promise.