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Blindsided by universal enrollment plan: How did we get here?

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It came in like a wrecking ball ...

I’ve been subjected to hearing my 10-year-old daughter play Miley Cyrus’ song "Wrecking Ball" many times. Some parents hear this song and envision the provocative music video. I’ve come to relate it to the universal enrollment plan being proposed for Philadelphia's schools. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was blindsided.

I consider myself a fairly informed public school parent. I attend School Reform Commission meetings, participate in various workgroups, and faithfully read this publication's morning news roundup. So when the Great Schools Compact, an education-reform initiative that seeks to replace poor-performing seats with high-quality alternatives, released its agreement at the end of 2011, I didn’t recall any red flags about universal enrollment as a plan to privatize the School District’s placement office and assign students to one school. 

About a year later, I attended a meeting where Compact members presented an update on their activities. They were pretty excited at the time because the Compact had just been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to pursue three of its initiatives: creating an urban leadership academy, sharing best practices for teacher effectiveness, and producing benchmark tests to align with the new Common Core standards. There was no mention of universal enrollment as something that was actively being pursued. 

So how did we get to the point where the Compact has presented a detailed timeline to City Council outlining their plans for a third-party, fee-driven, single-choice algorithmic system? It came in like a wrecking ball, and I wondered how I could have possibly missed it. When I looked back, I found that universal enrollment, as originally presented in the Great Schools Compact, is not what is being proposed now. 

The Compact document, dated Dec. 20, 2011, does include universal enrollment as one of its commitments to action. Here is how it's described.

We will pursue a system of “universal enrollment”—i.e., aligning schools’ application procedures, from public announcements to application materials to lottery dates and other timing, as uniformly as possible. Expanding the number of high performing schools will only truly serve parents and students if they are more readily able to assess, understand and apply for the options available to them.   

As written, the Compact actually promotes a plan for universal application, a process where all schools would have one common application and one timeline for application and acceptance.  

The Compact-driven website, PhillySchoolApp, seems to support this as well. Although it does not have a common application for all schools, it does provide users with a link to all of the applications that have been made available to it. So why has the Compact taken this so far beyond its original mission? One could say it is "mission creep,” but I can’t help feeling that we are the victims of a classic bait-and-switch.

At the SRC's public strategy meeting scheduled to discuss the pros and cons of universal enrollment, held earlier this month, “universal application” and “universal enrollment” were used interchangeably by the roundtable participants. The word enrollment was used when the groups were following the written instructions distributed by the SRC, and the word application was used when describing valid problems with the current system. 

Universal application (and universal enrollment as originally defined by the Great Schools Compact) could benefit parents and students throughout the city. Given that every charter school has its own application and set timeline for application and acceptance, this process would go a long way to help parents navigate the application process and make the best decision from the available choices for their students.

The most recent proposal for universal enrollment should really be called "contracted enrollment," because it essentially privatizes the District’s application and enrollment process. This won't benefit District parents and students, but rather operators and administrators of non-District-run schools. By allowing the public school system to promote seats and place students in non-district schools, the District would lose even more students and funding, much to its detriment.

If we are going to discuss this issues, let’s make sure we are all using the right vocabulary. Whether it is universal enrollment, universal application, or contracted enrollment, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. If not, that wrecking ball is poised to do considerable damage to our public schools and our city.

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Christine Carlson

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.