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Superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 Democracy Prep admissions lottery event.

When the city announced last week that a kindergarten admissions website would link to the charter school application, it took a small first step toward unifying charter and district school applications. But there appears to be little local enthusiasm for a fully unified enrollment process—something that many of the nation’s other large school districts are working toward with urgency.

In Denver, parents can apply to every charter and district school through one form and a single process. In New Orleans, the same is possible, with the exception of some of the city’s highest-performing charter schools. Newark is well on its way, as is Chicago, and similar discussions are taking place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

But while there hasn’t been any significant movement on that front yet in New York, city officials have indicated it’s a long term goal. “Eventually, we plan to streamline the application process to allow parents to apply to many types of public school programs in one place – be they district, charter, gifted and talented, or otherwise,” department spokesman Devon Puglia said.

Pushing for an integrated enrollment system could help cement charter schools’ place in the city’s school system at a time of political uncertainty for the charter sector. But city charter school advocates have indicated that they are focused on other issues.

“It’s something that I think people have an interest in, but it’s not something on the immediate horizon,” James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said.

New York hasn’t jumped on a unified system for a number of reasons, according to a number of current and former education officials: The city’s charter sector isn’t seen as large enough to justify the effort, charter school laws would need revision, charter school operators aren’t eager to turn over control of enrollment to a central system, and many feel the existing Common Charter School Application goes far enough toward easing access for parents.

The case for unification

Unified enrollment systems, which could expose more students and parents to charter school options, have been boosted by the support of Walton and other foundations that focus on school choice, including the Gates and Dell foundations. The ability to create a single ranked list of preferences of district and charter schools with common deadlines can make things easier for parents, who otherwise must keep track of different application requirements, wait for results from different charter lotteries, and monitor a traditional district enrollment process.

Ranking schools also means that each student receives a single offer from the school they’ve ranked highest that they get into, eliminating the inefficiencies and wait lists that arise from some students receiving multiple offers.

Centralizing admissions would also neutralize a prominent criticism of charter schools: that they do not serve the same students as district schools. Sharing an admissions process would make charter school admissions practices more transparent and would mean that their applicant pool is not limited to students with savvy parents.

A combination of those principles have prompted universal district-charter enrollment systems in Denver and New Orleans, the two big cities that have implemented unified application systems. Both were created with significant input from Neil Dorosin, the man who designed New York City’s high school admissions process and then ran it for four years. His organization, the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, is now the chief architect of unified enrollment systems nationwide.

“Kindergarten Connect is absolutely a step in the right direction,” Dorosin said. “The danger of Kindergarten Connect is to say, this is really good, we can stop there. There is more work to be done.”

For charter schools, less autonomy

In New Orleans, the unified enrollment system called OneApp now allows parents to apply to all of the schools in the Recovery School district and the traditional public schools run by the Orleans Parish School Board. But the Orleans Parish charter schools, which include many of the city’s top-performing schools and can selectively admit students, have resisted joining and won’t be required to until they renew their charters—for some, not until 2021.

Paymon Rouhanifard, superintendent of the small district of Camden, N.J. who intends to introduce the prospect of a unified admissions system for 2015 enrollment, said that the arguments against opting out of a unified system are the same everywhere. “Autonomy in the selection of students isn’t and shouldn’t be as necessary to drive student gains as autonomy in areas like staffing and curriculum,” he said, though he acknowledged that districts haven’t always executed changes to admissions policies smoothly.

It’s not always an easy sell for charter school operators who already have more applicants than they can serve, according to Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which has supported Chicago’s efforts to create a unified system for district and charter schools.

“The most pithy opponent would say, we don’t have a demand problem, we have a supply problem … Enrollment’s fine for us,” Broy said. “In the longer term, we’ve said that the movement will benefit from having a more transparent process.”

Merriman agreed that a centralized system can provide helpful transparency and eliminate well-connected parents from gaming the system. “We know that happens and goes on in New York City,” he said. “So there’s absolutely that advantage, and on the other hand it can look like a huge black box. While you are able to control and create greater fairness and accuracy of access, it’s very bureaucratically controlled, and you want to check on that and see if it’s doing what it’s advertised to do.”

Practical concerns

A unified enrollment system would require amendments to charter school law in New York, which mandates individual school lotteries and sets the first possible day for those lotteries as April 1, well after the city’s admissions processes have begun.

It would also need a major commitment from the city’s charter school sector, since New York City would not be able to require charter schools to change their enrollment procedures.

In Denver, launching the unified system meant getting every last charter school on board, one by one. “They had to be be reassured that Denver Public Schools could actually manage it so they wouldn’t screw up their brand,” recalled Mike Kromrey, executive director of advocacy group Together Colorado and a member of the initial coalition pushing for unified enrollment. “It was an enormous amount of work done by DPS. And to be honest, some old fashioned pressure … all the big funders of charter schools like Walton were in there from the beginning, and they probably put some pressure on their schools.”

When and whether any of those changes will come in New York is an open question.

“I don’t disagree with the overall assessment of the folks in Denver, with whom I’ve talked with repeatedly about the potential of a unified enrollment system,” Merriman said. “But that said, it would require a change in state law (always extremely difficult to get); and moreover, with a new mayor (and chancellor) coming in, we are for the time being focused on other and more immediate issues, such as funding and access to public school space.”

And asking legislators to reconsider charter school law could backfire, since some legislators are unfriendly to the charter school sector. In 2010, when legislators agreed to more than double the number of charter schools allowed to operate in New York, they added red tape for charter operators as well.

The enrollment tipping point

Department officials who have left New York have been involved in creating unified enrollment systems in other districts where charters are even more prevalent. Rouhanifard left the city’s Office of Portfolio Management in 2012 to become a top deputy in Newark, where he pushed for a unified enrollment process. Newark’s superintendent Cami Anderson left New York in 2011 and has made it a signature issue.

“I think it starts to make sense in communities where you start to have a sizable number of charter schools,” said Carlos Perez, CEO of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “It’s that critical mass.”

Almost 20 percent of public school students in Newark and more than 20 percent in Camden attend charter schools, compared to 5 percent of students in New York City.

Newark has already created a centralized application system for some of its district schools, and the district’s discussions with charter operators—who aren’t obligated to participate—are now in full swing,” according to Gabrielle Wyatt, the deputy director of strategy and innovation at Newark Public Schools. Acknowledging that some issues, like dealing with mid-year transfers, are thornier than others, the district has split the dealmaking into three parts and is asking for charters to opt in to them separately.

Wyatt said they’re confident enough that charters will opt in to say that a unified application will be released in January. Perez was cautious in his predictions, though. “I think just like anything that’s new, you’re going to have some that are early adopters and some that take a wait-and-see approach,” he said. “Some people still watch movies on VHS tapes.”

The remaining questions

As districts around the country continue hashing out their own plans, all eyes are still on Denver and New Orleans. The Center on Reinventing Public Education is now conducting a study on those systems with $500,000 from the Walton Family Foundation to provide information to other districts.

It’s not clear from current research whether the unified enrollment systems result in a more equitable distribution of high-needs students. Initial reports show that the new processes haven’t come without their headaches, though.

A study of the first year of the universal application process in New Orleans found that it actually added to parents’ level of confusion. Many misunderstood how the application worked and how they should fill it out. “While parents wanted the ability to choose a school, the act of choosing among limited options produced a range of emotions,” according to the study. “For many, the stress and anxiety was coupled with a feeling of powerlessness.”

In Denver, an analysis of the SchoolChoice program found that it worked efficiently, with over two-thirds of students matched with their first choice, though concerns have been raised about the need to improve outreach to Latino families.

“We believe the evidence shows that there’s more equity, it’s easier to understand, and it’s also been a sort of nudge toward parents thinking about their school more,” Kromrey said.

Cities across the country are working toward something similar, even if New York isn’t. “It’s one of those good ideas that is starting to gain momentum around the country,” Perez said. “It’s helpful not being the first one.”