By Marcus A. Winters

Students attending Philadelphia's charter schools make greater academic gains than they would have at a district school, according to a recent study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes. But questions about equitable access to these schools of choice remain.

As in other cities, Philadelphia's charter schools enroll smaller proportions of students who have disabilities, are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, or are learning English than do surrounding schools. Analysis of enrollment data shows that similar enrollment gaps in Denver and New York City are primarily driven by such students being less likely to apply to charters than other students. Thus, improving access to charters for disadvantaged students requires that we get more of them to apply in the first place.

To address this important enrollment gap, Philadelphia should consider following the lead of a variety of other urban districts by adopting a common enrollment system to assign students to both district and charter schools. In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, I demonstrate that Denver's adoption of this system substantially increased the enrollment of disadvantaged students in the city's charter schools.

In most cities, parents apply directly to each charter school in which they are interested in enrolling their children. Each school then conducts its own enrollment lottery separately and makes offers to parents or puts them on a waiting list. Each of these lotteries might have different deadlines and require different forms. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) reported that parents with less education find navigating the hodgepodge nature of the system more difficult than do parents with more education.

Recently, Denver, Newark, New Orleans, and Washington have all consolidated their application processes into a single, centralized system. Each spring, parents turn in one application form on which they list, in order, the schools in which they would most like their children to enroll. The central system then uses an algorithm to match students to schools in a way that accounts for both student and school preferences.

These common enrollment systems make the charter-school application process more accessible. In another recent CRPE survey, parents, particularly those with less education, reported that the common enrollment system reduced confusion in the enrollment process.

My new study shows that this increased accessibility has translated into larger enrollments of disadvantaged students in Denver's charter schools.

Upon adoption of a common enrollment system in Denver, I found a large increase in the proportion of students entering charter schools in kindergarten who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches or speak English as a second language. The effect was large enough to almost entirely eliminate the once-sizable gap in the proportion of kindergarten students in the city's charter and district schools classified as English-language learners, and it cut the gap of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches by more than half.

Common enrollment's results in Denver suggest it as a reform option for cities looking to improve access to charter schools for the students who need them most. Philadelphia should consider this option to open its charter schools to even more of the city's neediest students.

Marcus A. Winters is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. mwinters@uccs.edu