Education

Increasingly Popular Universal School Apps Meet Resistance in Philly

February 10, 2014
 

When it's time to enroll in school in Philadelphia, students face a bewildering array of choices: Neighborhood public school? Cyber school? Charter? Private or religious school? What about a specialty district school focused on science? Performing arts? International affairs?

Then, applying for admission can entail reams of red tape. Forms, requirements and due dates vary depending on the number and kinds of schools involved.

District officials are now wondering if universal enrollment can simplify things. The increasingly popular but contentious model would offer families a central online gateway to research their options and submit one application with ranked preferences, regardless of school type.

Opponents say the system actually reduces choice because a computer algorithm generates a single match for students. But supporters contend it can streamline planning for districts and level the playing field for residents without the means to master the hodgepodge registration process.

"There's many different deadlines, many different applications, and it really privileges the parents who have the time resources and connections to make that work," said Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer.

Rolled out over the past few weeks in Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., universal enrollment has also been adopted in cities including Denver and New Orleans. But the concept has met a lot of resistance in Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest districts.

Opposition stems partly from a proposal that enrollment would be managed by a private education reform group. Critics wonder about possible bias favoring charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently; they also object to giving students' personal data to a third party. In other cities, education officials run the system.

Additional concerns include whether the nearly broke Philadelphia district should be spending money on the initiative; how competition could increase for the small number of high-performing public schools; and if the city's Catholic schools can legally be included in the mix.

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