It’s been a little slow here at the Local Knowledge Blog, not because there isn’t much to write about, but because it’s been a brutally busy semester. But folks have been asking me about the new Camden Enrollment system, and my analysis. I wasn’t able to attend the rollout meeting, but I did make it to this month’s school board meeting to ensure I understood the new system. Here’s what I hope is a nuanced take: I’m cautiously optimistic. The system addresses and regulates some key areas of potential abuse both within charters and district schools, and marginal improvement in those areas should be lauded. But it also more deeply entrenches a choice system, which has its own potential (and history of inequities).
Let’s start with the basics. I’ll embed this video (even if I couldn’t be more tired of the “great schools” language — I’ll save that post for a day when I’m feeling truly curmudgeonly):
The system essentially consolidates what had been a wide variety of applications into a single application that the district runs (and, thus, regulates). This is important from an equity standpoint — applications have long been a potential abuse point. Even if you ignore the horror stories/urban myths of students being told on the phone “this probably isn’t the right school for you,” the plethora of different dates and applications can have an unintended (again, let’s be generous here) sorting effect. It is a lot of work to stay on top of multiple applications and deadline. At their worst, schools (and here I’m not specifically speaking about schools in Camden) have limited the times it is possible to apply — the worst story I’ve ever heard is a school that only allowed applications in for a few hours during one day. If a parent couldn’t take off work to drop off the application, the child likely couldn’t attend. That type of behavior serves as a sorting mechanism, making the parents with the most time/skills the most likely to apply (I say this with nothing but love for those parents struggling to make things work who either don’t have these skills — a refrain we often hear from our immigrant community — or those who are working extremely hard and aren’t in a situation to take off work to deal with such applications. Camden parents have such a high degree of daily difficulty).
At its best, this system should eliminate that type of shenanigans, or unintentional sorting. It also does the same for transfers across the Camden School District — a program that, while smaller in scale, has not been publicly accountable and holds the same potential for abuse.
Further, as opposed to the Newark or New Orleans single-enrollment systems, this system does not change local enrollment to get rid of neighborhood schools. In fact, as far as I can tell, it does not change any rules about which schools you can attend — the ways to have choice are the same — either you choose a charter school, or you apply for an intra-district transfer. I’m a little more skeptical that this is how it will play out in practice, for reasons I’ll mention below and talk about more extensively as the blog ramps back up. But the Camden system appears to have avoided the largest potential pitfall here — that many students be moved from their neighborhood schools. In Newark, the politics of this were compounded by the lack of transparency about the consultant-created formula used to make these decisions, part of a wider skepticism of the way that consultants were used in the city. The worry was that without transparency, open enrollment had the potential to help assure “chosen” schools that they’d get enough students. That’s less of a concern in Camden, where neighborhood schools are still required to serve everyone in their district that stays at the school.
Another impressive feature in this shift is that it appears most charter schools are on board with it. That’s likely been tough to assure behind the scenes, and at the board meeting District Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was careful to say that the system was “trending toward” having all schools enrolled, but nonetheless, it’s impressive. Even if schools aren’t consciously discriminating at the front end, having control over admissions means control over message (“we have a large waiting list”) and even, to a lesser extent, financing. Schools can use these waiting lists as an opportunity to show investors that they have the potential to grow into new schools. The data released by the district likely won’t have as strong of an effect, though we see schools such as Uncommon and Kipp touting their high ranking in that enrollment system by parents.
That’s the good. And, as I said up top, I think there is enough of it to be cautiously optimistic.
I’m going to address the bad more comprehensively as part of a wider post I’ve been working on for a little while, but the core idea here is that it more deeply entrenches a system of choice that happens on an unlevel playing field. An example: at the last board meeting, the district announced Mastery would be opening a new high school. Asked at the board meeting where the “demand” for such a high school was, Superintendent Rouhanifard mentioned that the 8th grade parents in Molina (Mastery’s middle school) had asked for a high school at a previous meeting.
Now, let’s ignore the ridiculousness of this answer — the question was about demand city wide, essentially about the fact that we keep opening new schools in Camden which will necessitate the (very unpopular) closing of schools down the line — and the superintendent answered it by speaking only about demand of a handful of parents. What struck me was how heartbroken the parent/activist was who asked the question. She had advocated for an reopening of Lanning Square for a decade — only to have it converted to a different type of school when it was reopened. Over and over she kept saying, “they get a high school in a week!”
The point here is simple. There are very deep inequities in the way charter/renaissance/traditional schools are treated by law and in practice. Some of these are obvious — Renaissance schools get new buildings as a result of legislation which gives them extra money (compared to other charters) and requires it, while the state refuses to invest in similar buildings for district schools. Other inequities are under the radar — such as the “old” charters which are frustrated that they get less dollars per student than the new Renaissance Schools get under the Urban Hope Act. And some of the inequities are more subtle, such as ways “voting with your feet” is influenced by full on marketing campaigns by charter schools, which have organizations designed to conduct such campaigns. At the last school board meeting, the district acknowledged that district schools were at a disadvantage and allocated money in the budget for recruitment videos. But there is still a big difference here (one I’ll dive into more next week) — Mastery / Kipp / Uncommon and other local charters have an organizational structure designed to help them recruit. In other words, the wider organization is actively supporting them. But here, the district is doing the opposite, instead of advocating district schools, last year it literally called for replacing district schools with Renaissance schools. Not a great advocate, and if I were a parent, it’d make me think twice about sending my child to a district school.
But even if we get out of the specific, nitty-gritty inequities, there is the bigger issue of reinforcing a choice ideology — because such an model is among the reasons the Camden school district struggles. Camden is a result of regionally racist housing policies (among other policies) that concentrated poverty into finite areas and kept it out of suburban communities. That choice was market-driven — those with more resources chose to self-segregate, leaving another community struggling to deal with high levels of need. I worry that if we reinforce the same ideology within Camden, we will again affect this type of sorting, where those with more resources will separate themselves. That’s harder to catch in Camden, because most of the community has such high needs that our traditional measures (i.e. free and reduced lunch) can’t capture these differences. But make no mistake, there is strata in Camden just like other places, and we have evidence from places like Newark that Uncommon, Kipp and others have a different population. There, it shows up as a free/reduced lunch split. That’s not likely in Camden, but just because a difference in population is hard to measure doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The good news is, in the short-term, Camden Enrollment should actually help with these problems. It makes it more difficult for segregation across the system and lowers the barriers to entry for those applying to multiple schools. In the long-term, the enrollment system more deeply entrenches a choice ideology that has potential to even further separate and segregate a community that already feels the pangs of segregation and separation.