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Unified enrollment proposal on the horizon for Boston

City official says plan will soon be unveiled

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Last year, a coalition of charter schools and Boston school department officials held a series of public meetings in which they floated a proposal to unify the enrollment systems of BPS and charter schools.

After encountering fierce pushback from parents who attended several of its public meetings, the public meetings ceased. Then the multi-million dollar battle over Ballot Question 2 — which would have raised the statewide cap on charter school expansion — encountered even more fierce opposition and ultimately was defeated soundly.

With those battles of 2016 still smoldering, officials from the Mayor’s Office, BPS and the Charter Alliance, which work together with Catholic schools in a group called The Boston Compact, say they will release another proposal this year, after they work through some of the issues raised last year by parents.

“We’re probably 90-ish percent there in terms of forming a proposal,” said Compact member Turahn Dorsey, the city’s education chief under Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration. “The intent is that when we get an updated proposal, we’ll vet it publicly.”

Under unified enrollment, parents would be able to fill out one school enrollment form for each child and receive assignments to both district-run and charter schools. Under the current enrollment system, parents must apply to BPS district schools and charters separately.

Last year, when the unified enrollment idea was proposed, parents reacted negatively to it during several meetings.

Parents with the group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) see a link between the unified enrollment push and a statement they say Walsh made to them in a November 2015 meeting that BPS would likely close as many as 36 of the 126 BPS schools. Walsh has denied making that statement, but city officials and education reform advocates, including former acting BPS Superintendent John McDonough, have repeatedly made calls for BPS to “right-size” the district by shedding schools.

Some parent activists view the calls to close schools as a back-door attempt to transfer public school buildings to charter school operators.

Dorsey said BPS, which is currently undergoing its Build BPS planning process, has no plans to shutter schools. And Boston Compact Chief Collaboration Officer Rachel Weinstein says the three Boston school buildings currently leased to charter operators provide a benefit both to the charters and the district.

“It brings in revenue for BPS and it’s a benefit to the charters,” Weinstein said.

Dorsey said the Compact members have built on the earlier plan that was widely panned in public meetings last year.

“That was really a beginning point for us to get to a new proposal,” he said. “A lot of folks who participated in the meetings invited us to meet with them. We did do more neighborhood-based conversations.”

Dorsey says Compact members held more than 10 additional meetings, which were not publicized.

Coming on the heels of the crushing defeat of the charter expansion ballot question, some are questioning why the Compact is pushing unified enrollment, which many see as laying the groundwork for charters to grow at the expense of district schools.

City councilors contacted by the Banner said they have not been informed that unified enrollment is back on the table.

“It is unacceptable that the administration continues to push forward a policy that so many parents have taken issue with,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson.

At-large Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George says she has concerns about how children with special needs would fare in a unified enrollment system.

“How would they work with new immigrants to the city,” she said. “If the Boston Compact is working toward anything, they should be creating a level playing field.”

Charter unified enrollment

While there is no timetable for the implementation of unified enrollment in Boston, charter schools have already launched their own common enrollment application, which allows parents to fill out one application for more than a dozen participating charter schools in the city. In that process, which began in November, applicants are given options for every school that accepts students in the grade to which their child is applying.

“We have thousands of applications,” said Boston Compact member Shanna Varon, executive director of the Boston Collegiate Charter School. “It’s extremely easy to apply to as many charter schools as a person would want.”

Charter schools by state law must enroll students regardless of where they live — inside or outside of city limits. BPS students, on the other hand, are assigned to elementary and middle schools using an algorithm that factors in their proximity to schools and gives the students living closest to a school priority over students living further away. Charters would not be able to give students living in close proximity preference over other applicants without a change in state law.

Under the current BPS assignment policy, which came after years of advocacy by many white parents and city councilors for neighborhood-based assignment, each student is guaranteed a chance at a seat in a higher-performing school, one with a level 1 or level 2 designation in the state’s rating system.

While many charters are considered high-performing under the state metrics, which are based largely on student performance on standardized tests, those schools have come under criticism for enrolling lower numbers of students with special needs than their BPS counterparts. As Jackson pointed out, charter schools also have been criticized for their high rates of suspensions, leading critics to charge that they use coercive means to force out students who don’t perform well, often before the state’s MCAS test is administered.

“Unified enrollment would not change the fact that students are suspended at many charters at an exponentially higher rate than in district schools,” Jackson said.

Dorsey said the Compact members have been discussing ways charter and district schools can better serve students with special needs, but he said there has been no discussion of the disparate use of student discipline measures in charter schools.