Gray administration wants to establish unified lottery for D.C. public and charter schools

The Gray administration is seeking to establish a unified enrollment lottery for the city’s traditional and charter schools in time to determine admissions for the 2014-15 school year, officials said Thursday.

While many details are yet to be worked out, the goal is to streamline an enrollment process that can be chaotic and frustrating for families and school administrators, said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, whose office is coordinating the effort.

Smith said she is working with Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, to design the new system in consultation with charter school leaders.

“We’re committed to a process that’s fairer for families and that allows families and schools to plan better,” Smith said.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, called the move “long overdue” and said he would continue his own efforts to design a unified lottery system.

“It may be we have a couple of options available” for the public to consider, he said.

Currently, dozens of charter schools operate separate enrollment lotteries. The traditional school system holds its own lottery for students seeking a seat in pre-kindergarten or in magnet schools and other so-called out-of-boundary schools outside their neighborhoods.

Children can win admission to multiple schools across both sectors, creating long wait lists that shift throughout the summer and into the fall as families decide where to enroll.

A shared lottery could help eliminate much of that movement, Smith said.

Parents would complete one online application, ranking both traditional and charter schools in order of preference. A computer algorithm would then run the lottery, admitting each child to only one school and maximizing the number of students who are matched with one of their top choices.

It’s not clear how many schools a parent would be able to rank. Also up in the air is whether wait lists would be managed centrally or by individual schools — and whether there would be any wait lists at all. Some cities that have already adopted unified lottery systems, such as New Orleans, do not use wait lists.

Despite those unknowns, D.C. school system officials said they have committed to participate in the shared lottery for the 2014-15 school year.

It’s not clear how many charter schools will sign up for the shared lottery. Participation would not be mandatory, and several charter leaders said they need to see more details before committing their schools to a new enrollment process.

“I think it’s doable,” said Karen Dresden, the head of Capital City Public Charter School, who said she supports the spirit of the shared lottery and is inclined to take part if the details seem reasonable. “Whether it’s doable by next year, I don’t know.”

Linda Moore, founder of Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School, said she would be hesitant to commit until seeing how the effort works in its first year.

Smith is seeking commitments from charter schools in June and is confident that a critical mass will sign up, she said, “if not in the first year, then in the second year.”

She said details about the new lottery will be available to parents in the fall, with the lottery to open in January.

Not all parents welcome the prospect. Lowrey Redmond, who just survived the search for a preschool for her daughter, said no matter what officials say about a computer algorithm, condensing all the lotteries into one would feel to her like less choice.

“I actually think that’s going to reduce the chances of me getting into something,” she said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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