Innovative Enrollment Initiative Gives Students Real Choice

If we're serious about reforming public education in our nation, we have to ensure all our kids have access to high-quality schools. Newark, New Jersey, is launching an innovative new universal enrollment program this week aimed at achieving that goal as well as promoting equity and transparency, but federal regulations may stand in the way of full implementation. The federal government needs to loosen the reins and let cities and school districts do what's best for their students.

Newark's universal enrollment program, part of the district superintendent's One Newark initiative, is representative of a promising trend emerging in a handful of school districts across the United States. Under universal enrollment, parents will simply fill out a single application to rank their top public district or charter school choices. This streamlined process will ease the burden for parents who will no longer need to go door to door to find out the options, timelines and enrollment requirements of their local schools.

The program, which went live Jan. 6, is a groundbreaking collaboration between the Newark public school district and the city's robust charter school sector. As of now, more than three quarters -- 16 of the city's 21 public charter schools -- are on board to participate. They should be commended for their willingness to step up and be part of the solution for better schools in Newark.

Public charter schools are often accused of "cherry picking" their students, avoiding special needs or high-risk students. A universal enrollment system will alleviate those concerns. Parents can list their top eight public district or charter school choices in order of preference, and the district will place students according to availability. Newark's universal enrollment initiative is bolder than others in its efforts to best serve students with the greatest needs. The system will give greater preference to students with special education needs, students who are eligible for free lunch, and students who want to attend a school in the community where they live.

The charters that opted not to participate have expressed concern that an initiative of this kind gives the school district too much control over charters, which currently operate as individual school districts accountable to the state. This is not the case. What the initiative does -- and the model it provides for other district-charter collaborations elsewhere in the United States -- is manage the complex process of enrollment to ensure equitable, transparent access for all students. It does not turn over school management to the district. Nor is it an effort by the district or teachers unions to take over charters. What it is about is equity and transparency among all public schools in the community. Charter school leaders got into this work to serve students and families in their communities -- not to control the enrollment process.

In order to move forward successfully with this initiative, though, policies concerning the allocation of federal charter school program funds will have to be addressed. The One Newark enrollment initiative ensures that high-need students have a solid chance of getting into top-performing public schools. Unfortunately, this could jeopardize charter funding, as current state and federal laws do not allow schools to prioritize these high-need students in their enrollment processes. This is poor policy and it must change. Charter schools should not be punished for attempting to serve the students who need them most.

Initiatives like Newark's universal enrollment program will demand a lot of compromise among stakeholders willing to work together in new ways. Allowing one entity -- the district -- to manage the city's school enrollment meaningfully streamlines the process for students and their families while promoting the important goals of equity and transparency across the district and charter school sectors. It is crucial that we do all we can to improve access for students across Newark, and that federal policies regarding school funding be made to align with the real needs of students.

I'm confident that, working together, we will see great things come out of initiatives like this one across the nation, to give all our kids a chance at a quality education that will enable them to succeed in college and beyond.