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Quiet push for unified enrollment

Many taken by surprise as Walsh co-sponsors state bill

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Quiet push for unified enrollment
BPS headquarters. Banner photo

Coming before the state Legislature with little debate last week was a bill co-sponsored by Mayor Martin Walsh that would fast-track a controversial school enrollment policy known as “unified enrollment.”

Under the bill, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, would be added into the school assignment lists that Boston Public School parents receive. Currently the assignment lists include only BPS schools. Students would automatically be entered into charter school lotteries and would have to actively opt out if they so choose.

Parent activist Megan Wolf, who testified about the bill during the Oct. 3 hearing at the State House, said the filing of the new enrollment policy took many by surprise and occurs while the public remains largely in the dark on details such as how the proposed unified enrollment process would work — including its impact on school choice, equitable access and the BPS budget.

“This bill is not one that has ever been discussed in open community meetings, in meetings of the Boston School Committee, which I attend regularly, in the local press or in any other public way,” said Wolf, who spoke on her own behalf, not as a representative of the parent group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), of which she is a member. “Nor has it been discussed in one-on-one conversations I’ve had with those involved in the process, at the city, district or school committee level.”

Boston School Committee member Miren Uriarte said the body was not informed that the bill was being filed.

“They have told us nothing,” she said. “We have not heard anything on this issue in several months.”

The lack of public discourse has stoked some parents’ concerns that there is an effort underway to advance charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools.

Wolf told the Banner it appears that discussions of issues such as unified enrollment and school closings are being delayed for pre-mayoral election optics.

“They’ve managed to hold back on BuildBPS, except most PR-friendly things like, ‘We’re going to buy furniture,’” she said. “Nothing controversial would come out before the election.”

In response to Banner questions on when the public will have a chance to weigh in on the plans, a Walsh administration spokesperson issued a statement attributed to the mayor.

“I look forward to reviewing the final proposal once it’s complete and hearing additional feedback from our families and school community,” the statement said.

Walsh did not respond to questions on the timeline for implanting unified enrollment or presenting a draft plan. The Banner was unable to reach Rep. Evandro Carvalho, one of the bill’s four co-sponsors.

Question of purpose, impact

It is unclear exactly how unified enrollment would be implemented for Boston. QUEST published a report last month outlining concerns on possible effects of unified enrollment, including that it could result in a reduction in options for students. These concerns are not answered in the four-page bill filed last week.

Currently, students have a list of school options comprising only district schools and can apply also to as many charters as desired. Under unified enrollment, unless school list lengths are expanded, the presence of any charter school on the list necessarily will bump a district school off of it, reducing district school options, states QUEST in its report published on Sept. 18, 2017. Under bill H.2876 filed by Rep. Alice Peisch and co-sponsored by Walsh, Carvalho and Rep. Dan Hunt, charter schools could elect to give enrollment preference to students living near the school.

QUEST’s report also raises questions on whether families would be guaranteed to have high-performing district school options on their list. Given that school lists draw from a one-mile radius around the students’ home, QUEST also says answers are needed as to whether a unified enrollment system will mean that assignment lists for students in charter-heavy neighborhoods like Hyde Park could include only or almost all charter options.

Other questions raised by QUEST include whether charter schools will be required to increase programming for students with higher needs and English Language Learners so that they take in an equal share of these more costly-to-educate demographics. Otherwise, it could put BPS at a disadvantage in school rankings if the new enrollment system causes charters to increasingly siphon off less-expensive students who traditionally perform better on standardized tests.

In 2015, supporters presented unified enrollment as a way to simplify the then-complicated charter school application process. At the time, families had to fill out a different application for each charter school. However, this problem has disappeared: at present, more than a dozen participating charters have switched to a single online common application form.

In a statement provided to the Banner in Boston Education Chief Rahn Dorsey’s name said that “Families need a clear and simple path to school enrollment and the goal of unified enrollment is to create an equitable system for all Boston’s families.”

The statement said that BPS currently is focused on evaluating its existing assignment system. Parents have long questioned the push to create a new assignment system, unified enrollment, without information on how well the current system is working.

The Dorsey statement also said that the work of addressing concerns over potential public policy on unified enrollment is being handled by a private entity called the Boston Compact. The Boston Compact comprises representatives of charter schools, religious schools and BPS schools and has the stated goal of promoting collaboration across these school sectors.

“After seven citywide meetings, 20 community discussions and many conversations with parents and educators, the Boston Compact is looking to address some of the questions that were raised, such as special education needs and students arriving mid-year,” said the statement attributed to Dorsey, who is a Boston Compact member.

In response to Banner questions on why unified enrollment was necessary, given the availability of a common charter application, a Boston Compact spokesperson issued a statement attributed to collaboration officer Rachel Weinstein that said that unified enrollment is meant to simplify enrollment and application processes, create consistent enrollment policies and procedures across district and charter schools and provide Boston students with “fairer access to high quality schools.”

Limited information

Unified enrollment was proposed in 2015 by the Boston Compact. However, QUEST states that some attendees at the Compact’s meetings on unified enrollment found the information limited.

“Details of the proposal’s implementation [at these meetings] were minimal,” states the QUEST report. “What information was provided changed from meeting to meeting, and it seemed to many parents that the goal was to promote the plan rather than to elicit genuine feedback. Even now, two years after the launch of the plan, details of how it would work, who would sign on, or what the potential benefits and costs would be, remain vague.”

The Boston Compact wrote in a Feb. 2016 letter that parents had expressed the belief that the Compact was not sufficiently transparent. Indeed, in Nov. 2015, QUEST filed a complaint to try to compel the Compact to abide by open meeting laws. The Compact defeated the complaint in July 2016, successfully arguing in part that, given the presence of charter and parochial school representatives and receipt of funding from private foundations, the Compact is a private entity and therefore not subject to public oversight.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a corporate education reform organization, provides a playbook for avoiding public resistance to implementing unified enrollment. CRPE refers to Denver and New Orleans as example locations where leaders managed to limit conflict and controversy over the strategies in part by avoiding robust conversation until late in the process.

“Leaders framed policy problems and solutions associated with enrollment in ways that resonated with stakeholders and delayed debates on the most controversial enrollment issues,” CRPE’s policy brief states.

In Jan. 2017, Education Chief Dorsey told the Banner that the Compact was 90 percent finished with its unified enrollment plan. Since then, there does not appear to have been any public airing of a plan except for last week’s hearing, in which the bill Walsh co-sponsored was among many pieces of charter-related legislation that came before the Legislature.