Last night the Newark Board of Education renewed its collaboration with the city’s charter school sector by committing to continue the district’s universal enrollment system called Newark Enrolls. While there have been some challenges during the last seven years, the Board consensus is a win for district parents and children.
“I believe families make decisions where their child should go,” Newark Superintendent Roger Leon said, “and I don’t think anyone should change that.”
Kyle Rosenkrans, Executive Director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation (NJCF), said in a press release, “we applaud the charter and district leaders for putting aside their differences and doing what is best for families.”
Charter school leaders had expressed some dismay about changes in Newark Enrolls. While previously parents could enroll their children in charters after the enrollment period (this year, December 7 to February 14), now they can only apply to traditional schools outside of the enrollment period. Yet the 11 charters that participate in the system agreed that the benefits of a universal enrollment system outweigh this change in policy.
Universal enrollment is rare — Newark, Camden, Denver, and D.C. come to mind —but it shouldn’t be. This kind of centralized choice system facilitates parent autonomy in choosing among a diverse group of schools —in Newark, traditional, charters, and magnets—and ranking their preferences. (One exception: Newark magnet school applicants have to submit grades, test scores, and other criteria.) Also, automating school selection disarms anti-choice proponents’ accusations that charters discriminate against children with disabilities; a 2018 study sponsored by NJCF called “Newark Enrolls: A Principled Approach to Public School Choice,” found that “special education students and those who are eligible for free lunch have greater access to schools that are in high-demand than before Newark Enrolls went into effect. This includes access to popular magnet and charter schools.”
Last year 49% of parents of K-12 children listed a district school as their first choice and 51% listed a charter as their first choice. The system’s algorithm matched 94% of kindergartners with one of their top three choices. Currently charter schools educate about 40% of Newark public school students.
While some Newark school board members initially had reservations, they agreed that scrapping the system would be untenable; in the past the district just assigned students to a school in their neighborhood and many of those schools have closed. Also, Newark Enrolls is extremely popular: According to a recent NJCF poll, 87% of Newarkers support the city’s enrollment system, and 79% prefer a year-round enrollment website over a two-month application website.
“You can’t just dismantle universal enrollment,” said board member Tave Padilla. “You would have chaos.”