With fewer available seats in good public schools than families who want them, many cities face a vexing challenge: How do you decide which children go where?
Enter Neil Dorosin.
"You have to allocate public school seats fairly, transparently, and efficiently, but it turns out that's not so easy to do," said Mr. Dorosin, the executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, based in New York City. "We help cities solve that problem."
Over the last decade, Mr. Dorosin and the nonprofit IIPSC have used a combination of economic theory and custom software to help overhaul the school choice and student-assignment systems in New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans. That work has converted a tangled web of school applications, deadlines, and admissions preferences into algorithms that generate one best school offer for every student.
"There is a science to giving parents what they want in greater numbers," Mr. Dorosin explained.
For the time being, at least, IIPSC has almost totally cornered the market on providing that service, and the group is now poised to expand. In March, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation awarded the institute $1.2 million that will be used to do work in Philadelphia, Washington, and a third city, likely Detroit. A fourth city could soon follow.
"School choice exists in most cities. It can either be organized and facilitated, or it can be the Wild West," said Joe Siedlecki, the program and policy officer for the foundation's U.S. education team.
Although IIPSC's initial efforts included only district-managed schools, the group's focus now is on creating "universal enrollment" programs that bring district and charter schools together in one centralized school assignment system. Proponents say that rationalizing the mechanisms that govern messy school choice marketplaces can help fix a host of problems, including opaque rules that unfairly benefit middle-class families, sometimes-sneaky admissions practices at charter schools, and long student waiting lists that hinder both families' and schools' ability to plan.
Because the assignment systems generate reams of data on parental demand for different schools and programs, they are also seen as a pillar of the "portfolio" approach to district management, in which families are offered an array of education options that may be expanded or closed based on performance and other factors.
But there is some evidence that algorithm-based school assignment doesn't help more disadvantaged children actually gain access to better schools, and some observers worry that such systems force parents to make choices without adequate information.
In some cities, universal enrollment has also sparked opposition from advocates for regular public schools.
"We've become obsessed with moving children around rather than investing in schools to improve them," said activist Helen Gym, a founder of the group Parents United for Public Education, based in Philadelphia. "I think that's a bad approach."
Allocating scarce resources
Mr. Dorosin of IIPSC described the field of "market design" that underlies the institute's work in lay terms: Some scarce goods, like expensive women's shoes, can be distributed by selling them to the highest bidder, he said. But others — human organs, for instance — cannot.
The latter is not an abstract example. IIPSC's board chairman, Alvin E. Roth, a professor at Stanford University who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2012, designed an overhaul of the nation's system for matching the limited number of kidneys donated each year to the much-longer list of those who need a transplant.
To match students with seats in public schools, IIPSC creates algorithms that draw from three sets of data: The schools that families actually want their children to attend, listed in order of preference; the number of available seats in each grade at every school in the system; and the set of rules that governs admission to each school.
Selective magnet schools might screen for test scores, for example, while charters may give preference to low-income families or to the children of their board members. Most systems prioritize giving siblings the opportunity to attend the same school, and different schools offer dozens of other types of preferences. Fitting all the pieces together makes for an extremely complicated logic problem.
IIPSC software doesn't guarantee that every family or school will get exactly what it desires, said board member Atila Abdulkadiroglu, an economics professor at Duke University. But the algorithm-building process "helps us to identify the trade-offs, determine what is achievable, and come up with the optimal compromise."
The benefits are evident in the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, where in 2004, Mr. Dorosin, then the district's director of high-school-admissions operations, helped lead the nation's first adoption of an algorithm-based school assignment program. The focus was on district-run high schools.
Entering the 2013-14 school year, three-quarters of the city's 75,000-plus rising 9th graders now receive one of their top three high school choices. Only about 1,000 students have to be manually placed outside of the algorithm-matching process, via administrative assignments. That's way down from 30,000 annually before the switch, when a murky "gray market" of high school choice flourished.
In addition, student waitlists have been eliminated, meaning that schools can begin allocating their budgets, hiring staff members, and planning programs — and that all families know where they stand — much earlier in the selection process.
"Previously, those who knew how to work the system were able to get a number of options, and others were left behind," said Robert Sanft, the CEO of the New York district's office of student enrollment.
Denver's student assignment system
Since the Denver school system paid IIPSC $350,000 in 2011 to help design its new student assignment system, formally known as the SchoolChoice program, the 88,000-student district has reaped similar rewards, said Shannon Fitzgerald, Denver's director of choice and enrollment services.