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DC charter schools should centralize admissions

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

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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.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica. 


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haha, the whole point of charter schools is to get out from under bureaucracy so they can "innovate". And here you are advocating for a centralized bureaucracy of charter schools.

Why don't you just create a separate but equal system and be done with it?

by Alex on Oct 25, 2010 2:28 pm • linkreport


And here you are advocating for a centralized bureaucracy of charter schools.

Weird. The post I read was advocating for a single registry of charter school admissions status. Presumably run under the auspices of the OSSE. (An argument which seems remarkable mostly for its non-controversialness.)

Are you sure you weren't looking at something else?

by oboe on Oct 25, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

Actually the real sorting occurs after the 1st of September, when you get a call offering you a slot.

Signing for multiple schools in the lottery is not "subverting the intent" of open admissions, it is doing your best for your kid. As you should. Everybody involved with this system knows this -- it is no different from getting into college.

For me as a parent the point of the lottery was to get to know, in person, what the schools are like. Do they respond promptly to my questions, or is the principal high-handed? Singing up for the lottery gave me a very real taste of what to expect. So from the point of view of the parent, a centralized lottery is a bad idea.

by goldfish on Oct 25, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

Capitol Hill School information night:

by goldfish on Oct 25, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

You could really simplify things if you just assigned children to a school. You'd need to think of some way to group them, though. Maybe by neighborhood?

by jcm on Oct 25, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

This is a solution in search of a problem. If you want to apply to 20 charter schools, do so and keep track of each one. If not, don't.

There. I fixed it.

by Dan on Oct 25, 2010 8:49 pm • linkreport

New York and Boston use a matching method like this. They've found that it greatly increased the number of students who got one of their top choices.

by Bill on Oct 25, 2010 9:34 pm • linkreport

In study after study charter schools do no better than regular schools. The one outlier found a small difference. they are bright shiny objects. They often are based on rather naive ideas (sadly so are the philosophies that guide a lot of regular classrooms). Most parents really don't know how to shop around beyond reputation and test scores. Many would rather stick with a neighborhood school because the logistics of anything else are daunting esp. in the elementary grades.

by Rich on Oct 25, 2010 11:37 pm • linkreport

Just what Washington needs, another program set up to discriminate against those most in need. While I am willing to guess there are more people in NW able to pay for private school than in Ward 8, some are advocating a system of managing 20 applications (@Dan) which would have the absolute opposite effect... It would give a huge advantage to kids from families with money.

by Mike R. on Oct 26, 2010 9:12 am • linkreport

A centralized lottery is a bad idea. Would you limit the number of schools a child could apply to -- that might actually lead to worse child-school matches. If I had only had six slots, I probably would not have applied to the school my child currently attends, and in hindsight, I'm pretty sure it is the best of all the schools I did apply to.

Schools have different lottery processes. LAMB has distinct lotteries for English and Spanish dominant kids. Some schools combine 3 and 4 years olds in one lottery, others have separate lotteries for 3s and 4s. How would a centralized lottery handle that?

There are very good charter schools in this city that are doing a great job educating low-income students (and middle income students). This essay sounds like it is written by the parent of a 3 or 4 year old who just started the school process and is worried that they won't get in under the current system. Don't worry, Steve, it all works out.

by Charter Mom L on Oct 26, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

One way such a lottery could work is simply that each person ranks as many schools or programs within schools that they want to, and submit them as one entry. They get one lottery number. When their number comes up, they get placed in their first choice school/program if there is room, otherwise second, and so on.

So in this example, one parent of a Spanish-speaking 4 year old could put down "4 year olds at school X" as one item, or "Spanish speakers at school Y" as another, assuming they are eligible in both groups.

If the school does 3 and 4 year olds separately, then no matter how many 3 year olds come up higher in the master lottery, the 4 year old pool won't get filled up and this 4 year old can get in if their number comes up before it's full.

And there's no reason it would need to limit your number of choices. Put down 32 choices, and if your number comes up near the end and the first 31 choices are all full by then, then you can get the 32nd choice.

It does force parents to decide which schools they want before they enter instead of after, which might be a plus or a minus. I'm not a parent so I don't know the answer to that. But the lottery is logistically possible.

by David Alpert on Oct 26, 2010 10:55 am • linkreport

@David Alpert: the number of slots are limited. If there are too many students, what do you do for those that only signed up for 10 schools? Give them their 11th (nonexistent) choice?

The schools a parent signs up for is a complicated decision -- besides academic philosophy and performance, and getting your kid to the school is an essential consideration. Transportation and distance matter when you go there every day, and most schools are too far away to be a meaningful choice.

by goldfish on Oct 26, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

@Charter Mom:

Would you limit the number of schools a child could apply to...[?]

I don't see how this necessarily follows. Why would that be required under the proposed standardized lottery?

[Captcha: "Pineasp Awareness!"]

by oboe on Oct 26, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

goldfish: In that case, the kid wouldn't get into any school, just the same as if a kid today enters 10 lotteries and doesn't get into any of the schools. The chances would be the same.

by David Alpert on Oct 26, 2010 11:23 am • linkreport

@ Charter Mom L Steve, the author, is actually one of the founders of Yu Ying. I'm pretty sure he understands how the lottery process works.

by jcm on Oct 26, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

@jcm, Steve's proposal would pretty radically change the way Yu Ying does its wait list. Yu Ying forms its waiting list based on date of application rather than by lottery. And, Yu Ying if the first of the charter schools in the city to open up its application process (Oct. 9 this year). The Yu Ying system, more than most other Charters, discriminates against the less informed parents, those with less flexible work schedules and without reliable access to e-mail. If you are not tuned into the Charter application process a full year before your child will start school, you lose the opportunity to by high on the Yu Ying wait list. Thus, the Yu Ying system favors friends of current Yu Ying families and those who can take the day off to wait in line or who have access to highspeed e-mail at their desk and can submit the application by e-mail when the application process opens.

The proposed system would do away with Yu Ying's defacto filter. So that might be good.

But, it would also probably make it easier for parents to apply to more charters and thus would just make wait lists longer at each school. Forcing parents to make a "first choice" school in February or April or whenever is not a good idea. It is hard to choose a first choice school even with open houses and etc. Some folks might choose a school based on where their friends kids are also going -- i.e. I would probably have put my kids in Haynes if 2 friends had also gotten in there and decided to go. Because those people did not get into Haynes, I took a different spot and freed up the Haynes spot for #1 on the wait list. Some one might move, or change jobs between filling out the lottery form and August, so again a first choice might change.

by Charter Mom L on Oct 26, 2010 11:43 am • linkreport

Wow, nice to see folks taking an interest in this idea. I won't have time to respond fully until after work and after my son's in bed, but let me just make a few quick points.

First of all, I want to repeat that this is not a Yu Ying position. In fact, I have not discussed the idea with anyone at the school besides my wife. I have been thinking about optimal school choice lotteries long before Yu Ying came into existence. I first confronted the problem when I was analyzing parent choice data from the Minneapolis Public Schools in the mid-90s and studying the medical resident-hospital match, the economics of the marriage market, and the groundbreaking work by economist Al Roth. Since then I've been obsessed with these mechanisms.

By the way, one of the most efficient one-sided match algorithms is exactly the one that David Alpert described above. It's how they assigned upperclassman dorm rooms when I was in college. Everyone gets a number and they get called up in lottery number order and get to choose from among the available spaces. You need some provisions to account for joint preferences (friends, roommates, siblings, carpool buddies) the same way that spouses seeking hospital residencies can match together in a two-sided match situation. But the first step is to rationalize the admissions process.

Second, I am not going to debate the merit of charter schools per se. This is about once you have an array of charter school options like we do in DC, how do you most efficiently and fairly allocate scarce slots so poor kids do not get the short end of the stick and as many people are as happy as they can be?

Third, centralizing admissions does not require a big bureaucracy or sacrifice of charter school autonomy. Or to the extent that it does, hopefully the total cost of one admissions process will be less than the cost of 55 separate admissions processes.

Finally, I want to thank Charter Mom L for making my point that centralized admissions are more fair than loosely monitored school-by-school admissions. Where Charter Mom L is mistaken is that a centralized process can allow parents to list as many or as few schools as they like in rank order and that it should be possible to conduct such a single lottery as late as April, ending the "arms race" for an earlier and earlier lottery date that the medical profession had before they devised the centralized resident match.

by Steven Glazerman on Oct 26, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

To me, this solution is a typical economic sorting mechanism, which may in fact be the most efficient. But it ignores the fact that people like shopping. In fact, it's the shopping and selection process itself that leads to greater satisfaction with the selection. Thus, charter parents may be convinced of the correctness of their choice and hence more satisfied with their choice in the current hodge-podge system than they would be in the proposed single application.

Maybe that leads to parents supporting their charter's more, and being more enthusiastic. That seems to be the way it is at my kid's charter. Parents are very supportive, and the unhappy families transfer out.

by mtp on Oct 26, 2010 2:14 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert: One way such a lottery could work is simply that each person ranks as many schools or programs within schools that they want to, and submit them as one entry. They get one lottery number. When their number comes up, they get placed in their first choice school/program if there is room, otherwise second, and so on.

That would be mathematically fair, and also it would never happen. People don't like systems like this, they are politically unpalatable, and inevitably the systems become more complicated and also more subject to gamesmanship. Almost all of the people I know I know who go through a centralized admissions process end up having to put something other than their first choice at the top of the list, because by putting something less desirable there they might actually get it, while if they put their true first choice at the top of the list there's an excellent choice they get the dregs. Cambridge public schools, San Francisco public schools, they are all like this.

by David desJardins on Nov 11, 2010 3:50 am • linkreport

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