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Commentary: Progress on unified enrollment creates the opportunity for Los Angeles to work toward a system based on equity

Seth Litt and Oscar Cruz | December 11, 2018

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Thousands of families across Los Angeles have just finished submitting applications for the schools they hope their children will attend next year. The decision of where to send your child to school is one of the most important decisions that a family makes. For many children in our city, the school that they attend will determine whether or not they go to college and the opportunities that they have in their life. Finding a good school keeps families in Los Angeles up at night, from the search for an elementary school to the scramble for high school.

This year, finding the right school got easier for lots of Los Angeles families. This is a moment to celebrate, and an opportunity to reflect on the work still to be done to make sure that every family in Los Angeles can easily enroll their children in good public schools. LA Unified has implemented the first phase of its unified enrollment effort, and all of the district’s major choice programs now have aligned timelines, a standard application, and an online platform available in English and Spanish. This means that families can apply to any district choice program, including magnet and dual language programs, more easily than ever. Families can also use a new school finder tool, launched by the district in September, to learn about their options. This tool is a big step toward closing the information gap that gives more privileged families a leg up in accessing the best schools and programs.

And for the first time, some charter schools are participating in a common enrollment platform where parents can explore multiple charter schools on a single website, manage deadlines, see the status of their applications, and accept offers all in one place. This platform, ApplyLA, launched in September and includes about 10 percent of local charter schools in its pilot year, with high hopes that more charters will join.

When the PEAPS coalition began its work advocating for unified enrollment in Los Angeles, our organizations recognized a landscape where there were many choices, but a jumble of disparate application processes and deadlines that made finding a school too difficult. Complex systems tend to benefit people with more resources – whether in terms of time, influence, or institutional knowledge – who can figure out how to navigate these systems in their favor. When it comes to applying to and enrolling in high-quality schools, this means that families who have the most resources go to the front of the line.

Advocates and experts from across the country warned that progress would be difficult. They said that the politics here were too toxic, the system too fragmented, that there were too many competing interests. But less than two years after the coalition formed, we are proud that there has been significant progress toward a more equitable application and enrollment system for LA families.

These new tools and systems exist due to the hard work and commitment of both district and charter leaders. Progress has happened because board leaders made sure that unified enrollment remained a priority. District staff worked hard to build new tools and implement changes to applications and deadlines. Charters came to the table in a first step toward what we hope can be a unified enrollment system that includes all publicly funded LA schools, regardless of governance.

While these milestones mark meaningful progress in our sprawling enrollment systems, there is still work to be done to fully remove the barriers that families from historically underserved communities face when trying to send their children to high-quality schools. The fact is that we still have a system that remains unnecessarily complex, and does not include all schools on a single platform.

Our shared vision has to be one that is built on true equity, where students in underserved communities have the same access to good schools as students who come from families with more resources. This is possible in Los Angeles.

LA Unified’s Independent Analysis Unit recently published a report that highlights how achieving racial balance is not the same as achieving racial equity and illustrates how some groups of students face more barriers in accessing magnet programs than their peers. In the August 2018 report, IAU researchers analyzed magnet enrollment patterns over a span of more than ten years. Even though LA’s high performing magnet schools are often life-changing for kids of color living in poverty, the report found that the district’s magnet programs reflect the economic, racial, and linguistic divisions that too often define who gets access to opportunity in LA Unified.

For example, the report found that students from families with college-educated parents are 40 percent more likely to be enrolled in a magnet program than those students with parents who did not graduate from college. Magnet programs were also found to enroll a smaller share of English Learners and students with special needs than non-magnet programs. When comparing the neighborhood schools of African American, Latino, and Native American magnet students with their white and Asian counterparts, the IAU found that the schools African American, Latino, and Native American students were assigned to performed lower than those assigned to white and Asian students.

These findings point to an issue that exceeds in scope the ability of a school finder tool or an aligned set of deadlines to address. The fact is that the forces that shape how students apply to, enroll in, and attend school are fundamentally inequitable. In an equitable system, attending a high-quality school that fits a student’s individual needs would not require a parent to have intimate knowledge about how to accrue magnet points, or the wherewithal to complete and submit a different application to each charter school they would like to enroll their child in.

As we move forward, we do so with a call for a single unified enrollment system that includes all schools. This system should be responsive to metrics that measure equity and access by tracking application, enrollment, and attendance patterns by ZIP code, race, language spoken, economic status, and special education status. District and charter leaders should commit to annually reviewing and publicly discussing these metrics, and take real action based on that data to ensure all families have access to quality schools.

Change is hard. It takes trust, focus, and a commitment to execute on details big and small. But most importantly, real change in unified enrollment requires us to agree that we will work toward a vision guided by equity, and a commitment that as we improve and expand the tools we have, we will also build a new system where a family’s circumstances or home language doesn’t dictate the educational opportunities available to their children.

If we really mean it when we say that every student in LA deserves to get a great education, then access has to mean access for all, and we must continue the work of removing the barriers that prevent all families from finding and enrolling their children in high-quality schools.

Seth Litt is executive director of Parent Revolution, and Oscar Cruz is president & CEO of Families in Schools. They are members of the Partnership for Equitable Access to Public Schools in Los Angeles (PEAPS-LA) coalition, which works to ensure every child in Los Angeles has access to high-quality public schools through an equitable enrollment process.

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