Helping Families Choose: Advocates Discuss Open Enrollment in Colorado
April 19, 2019

Recent releases from advocates in Colorado highlight the information gap surrounding open enrollment at the state and district level. The Colorado Public School Choice Act, established nearly 30 years ago, allows families to choose public schools—both traditional and charter schools— beyond their residentially assigned school, crossing zoning lines in and out of their home district. But, research shows that white and affluent families historically utilize the system more than their low-income peers. Last fall, Ready Colorado released research examining open enrollment across the state, and more recently, A+ Colorado released a report on the unified enrollment system in Denver. Both releases examine how leaders can make the open enrollment system accessible to more families. Here, leaders from PIE Network members Ready Colorado and A+ Colorado weigh in.

Ready Colorado: One Third of Colorado Students Are Exercising Choice

By Tyler Sandberg, Vice President, Ready Colorado

School choice is based on one simple but powerful principle: parents should have the ability to send their kids to any school that will help their children thrive.

That means any school. School choice advocates often focus their energy around the narrow frames of private or public charter schools, but that limited frame doesn’t reflect the reality of parent choice in states like Colorado where more parents access school choice through open enrollment than any other method.

More students attend a traditional district school outside their neighborhood than attend charter schools, which is notable considering that Colorado is a leading charter school state.

My organization supports the full panoply of school choice. We’d love to see kids have greater access to private school and public charter schools, but it’s important for advocates to expand their definition of school choice to include traditional public schools, as it not only demonstrates the degree to which parents will utilize school choice when empowered to, but it also helps reframe the debate away from one that pits traditional public schools against other options. This broader view of school choice recognizes that traditional public schools are part and parcel of any strong school choice system.

After all, the principle of school choice says parents should have the right to send their kid to any school that will help their children thrive, and often that best option can be a traditional public school—it’s just not always the one their children are assigned based on their zip code.   

A study published by Ready Colorado in the fall of 2018 found that nearly 100,000 kids were choicing into a traditional public school within their home school district and nearly 50,000 were attending a traditional district school across district lines. That represents over 16 percent of kids in the state. When all forms of choice are considered, well over a third of Colorado’s kids are using school choice.

While the utilization of open enrollment is greatly encouraging, we also found some concerning trends.

The students that choiced into traditional public schools across district lines were more likely to be white and affluent, whereas students of color, students from low-income families, and students learning English as a second language were all under-represented.

This is due to a number of reasons, including access to transportation, a mish-mash of open enrollment deadlines across districts, and a general lack of communication from school districts to parents about their options.

Open enrollment has been pivotal to building a strong system of school choice in Colorado, giving parents even more options that might provide a strong fit for their children, but more work remains to be done to ensure equal access for all kids.  

A+ Colorado: Improving Unified Enrollment in Denver Public Schools

By Laura Valle-Gutierrez, Policy Analyst, A+ Colorado

Imagine a world where you could only go to the hospital closest to where you lived. For many situations, this might be just fine. Primary care and ER visits, in particular, are situations where minimizing distance is really important. However, sometimes you need a specialist. Distance might still be a factor, but there are other important things to consider too: compatibility of your schedule, whether that doctor takes your insurance, and most importantly, the quality of the doctor and fit with your needs.

Like picking a specialist, school choice systems are an important tool for families that are seeking the right school to meet their students’ particular needs.  

The crux of the matter is ensuring that all families have an equal chance to choose a school that’s the best fit for them.

A+ Colorado recently released a report that looks at the history and impact of Denver Public School’s (DPS) unified enrollment system on increasing equitable access to schools. Denver’s unified enrollment system offers one streamlined process to apply to schools outside a student’s assigned school including other neighborhood, magnet, and charter schools.

Inequitable Access to Choice

Prior to the implementation of the unified enrollment system in DPS, there were multiple mechanisms students and families had to navigate to choose a school outside of their neighborhood school. As a result, less than half of students chose a school outside of their assigned-neighborhood school. These opportunities were not equally or equitably spread throughout the city. DPS introduced a unified enrollment system to help ensure that these choice mechanisms were equally accessible to all families.

A recent blog published by the Brown Center at the Brookings Institute reports that even in unified enrollment districts: “By withholding information from certain types of students, particularly those who may seem more difficult to educate, schools may be contributing to a key source of educational inequality.” If unified enrollment systems are to be a key mechanism by which districts address inequities across racial, economic, and therefore, geographic lines, then assuring equal access to information is a critical component of any unified enrollment system.

Communicating the System to Parents

In many ways, it seems that DPS’ choice system prioritizes this. Notably, a 2012 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that of the school districts surveyed, parents in Denver Public Schools were the most likely (83 percent) to have the information they felt they needed to choose a school.

DPS’ unified enrollment system implemented several new systems intentionally trying to address equity concerns in school access. Families from all demographics now participate at high rates in transition grades, shown in our recent report on Unified Enrollment in Denver (p.10). The most notable system-wide change is the one single application and timeline for all schools. This, in addition to 150+ locations where families can access help on their applications and other district efforts, resulted in more than 90 percent of English and non-English speaking families reported positive feelings around the unified enrollment process.

Improving on Shortcomings

There are still shortcomings of Denver’s unified enrollment system.

Chief amongst those is that low-income students and students of color are still more likely to attend a lower-rated school, even though more students are “trading-up,” to higher-rated schools.

Further, we still see that students eligible for free and reduced price lunch are less likely to rank a top-rated school as their first choice than students ineligible for free/reduced price lunch. There are many reasons why this may be true, and chief amongst them is that quality schools are not evenly distributed across the city, disproportionately requiring many families of color and low-income families to make a trade-off between proximity and quality.

Clearly, ensuring truly equitable access to all schools is more complex than creating one single application. It requires that districts have great schools for families to choose from and systems to ensure equal and fair access. Districts need to consider how to provide truly equitable access, beyond one unified application, to ensure that unified enrollment systems lead to better outcomes for all students.

Interested in learning more about the strategy behind this research in Colorado? Reach out for a connection to Ready Colorado and A+ Colorado.

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Tyler Sandberg

Tyler Sandberg is Ready Colorado's Vice President

Laura Valle-Gutierrez

Laura Valle-Gutierrez is A+ Colorado's Policy Analyst 

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