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Common Enrollment

The Newest Page in the Privatizer’s Playbook

The push to expand charter schools, and drain money from public schools, hides behind the façade of a simplified student enrollment process

In 2015, Kim Davis, a parent whose children attend school in California’s Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), went to a community meeting  about improving the large district’s student assignment system—a process that many parents agreed was in need of some sort of repair.

But Davis, co-founder of Parents United for Public Schools (OUSD Parents), immediately suspected that something about this particular meeting wasn’t quite right. First of all, it wasn’t led by district officials, educators, or parents, but by representatives from Educate 78 and Great Oakland Public Schools (or GO Public Schools), two groups with deep ties to the corporate education privatization agenda.

Also, the presentation was infused with hyperbolic rhetoric about the “crisis” engulfing the enrollment process. There was no time to waste because the current system was profoundly unfair to Oakland parents and in need of an urgent overhaul, at least that’s what attendees were told.

But revamping the system was easily attainable, they promised, because the estimated $1.4 million tab would be picked up by various “philanthropic” organizations. But there was one condition: The new system had to combine public schools and charter schools in one enrollment process.

“It was all very manipulative,” recalls Davis. “The way they framed the issue as this big emergency and then they kind of slid charters in under the door near the end of the meeting. That’s what this proposal was all about—opening up even more doors to charters in Oakland.”

That’s a familiar tack of charter operators and their supporters in their push to expand the sector. This fledgling movement to overhaul enrollment systems is just the latest front. After all, advocating for a more streamlined process is far more digestible than asking a community for greater access to its students and public money. 

But that’s exactly what groups like Educate 78, and GO Public Schools, and their financial backers have in their sights for Oakland. They want an even greater market share for charter schools, which currently comprise almost half of the city’s K–12 institutions.

To charter supporters, common enrollment punches that ticket.

There’s nothing wrong with streamlining procedures, says Davis, but “what they don’t want to talk about is the damage common enrollment will inflict on our schools and our students.”

Perpetual Cycle of School Disruptions and Closures

Common enrollment has already come to a number of urban school districts, including Denver, the District of Columbia, New Orleans, and Newark and Camden, N.J. 

The specifics vary depending on the district, but under common enrollment, privately run charter schools are invited to use the district’s school enrollment system. Families are given one application and presented with a range of information about the choices. After they submit their top choices, a computer algorithm takes over to match those selections with available seats.

There are changes to the student assignment and enrollment process that can and should be made, says Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association. But, she points out, common enrollment is a disruptive and dishonest scheme.

“It presents all schools in its system as public schools, even though charter schools are privately managed and not publicly accountable,” explains Gorham.

Public oversight into charters wouldn’t suddenly reappear under a common enrollment system. No new accountability measures would be imposed to prevent the sector’s well-documented practice of cherry-picking high-achieving students, or the regressive discipline policies that disproportionately target students of color.

The most devastating impact, however, would be felt in public schools’ bottom line. “Common enrollment is likely to entrench a perpetual cycle of school disruptions and closures,” says Gorham.

Keith Brown, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in South Los Angeles, foresees dire long-term consequences if more dollars exit public schools.

“We will lose funding for programs that support all students,” says Brown. “English language learners and students with special needs will suffer. Our schools have innovative programs such as Restorative Justice to keep our students learning and engaged in the classroom.”

Where common enrollment has been implemented, these disruptions have been widespread. The system came to Camden and Newark, N.J., following passage of the Urban Hope Act in 2012. In these districts, and in Trenton, the law opened the door for the start of so-called Renaissance Schools (or “hybrid” charter schools). As more students signed up for charters and the sector’s grip on these communities tightened, resources were drastically depleted, neighborhood schools closed, and staff were cut across the board.

Camden parent and public school activist Ronsha Dickerson says the jargon used by charter advocates when championing common enrollment is deliberately deceptive.

“They use words like ‘equity’ and ‘equality,’ but this is not about creating a level playing field for all our children and giving our schools—every school—the tools they need to succeed,” Dickerson says. “That’s equity. What they’re doing with common enrollment is taking from the community, taking from our children.”

School closings, students left behind, and layoffs. Merely collateral damage to improve parental knowledge and better serve low-income communities? That’s how charter proponents would spin it, but the objectives of the wealthy donors who are funding common enrollment initiatives across the country have a much more ambitious goal, says Trish Gorham.

“Common enrollment is favored by groups like the Walton [Family] Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, who want to discredit and dismantle a unified public education system.”

Educators and Parents Push Back

The dramatic erosion of public schools in the community drove the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board to vote in October to dismantle the so-called “One Newark” universal enrollment system. Earlier in 2016, the attempt to slip common enrollment in under the radar in Oakland, under the guise of a manufactured crisis, also ran up against a committed alliance of educators and parents.

“We were not going to be used as a rubber stamp for an idea made in a corporate boardroom,” recalls Keith Brown. “We wanted true power in making decisions for schools.”

The Oakland Education Association joined forces with OUSD Parents and other community organizations to educate the public—through rallies and school board meetings—about how common enrollment further destabilized other school districts through school closures and layoffs.

“There’s been a lot of collaboration between educators and parents,” says Kim Davis. “We raised awareness and the press got involved. Common enrollment became a spotlight issue and that visibility helped.”

The effort evidently was paying off as the school board kept on delaying a vote. In June, with the votes to approve common enrollment clearly not there, the board tabled the proposal indefinitely.

“We fought back pretty well,” says Gorham, who quickly cautions that the charter industry isn’t about to formally surrender. Sure enough, the proposal has been rolled into something called the “Equity Pledge,” an attempt by OUSD to extract a promise from the district’s charter schools to be more transparent and accountable to the public—presumably, to tamp down community concerns about a single enrollment system.

But it is only a pledge, says Gorham.

“There are no teeth to it. I don’t think charter schools feel any urgent need to divulge how they operate to the public, to be better actors in the community.”

Whatever new path charter supporters take, the fight is far from over—in Oakland and other urban districts that are in their sights.

“We have to be ready,” says Gorham. “Common enrollment is the new chapter in the privatizer’s playbook and they won’t give it up easily.” 

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