Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

Shining a Light on Common Enrollment

What do school choice and power supply in South Asia have in common? Turns out, more than you might think.

As we learned when researching our new report, Common Enrollment, Parents, and School Choice: Early Evidence from Denver and New Orleans, common enrollment is an important step in making school choice work for families.

Common enrollment systems centralize the application and student assignment process for a city’s district and charter schools. Parents only have to fill out a single application listing their preferences for schools and adhere to a single deadline.

Families can safely list their true school preferences (instead of trying to outwit or second-guess the system), thanks to software coded to capture all of the city’s school assignment rules and perform a lottery to match students to schools.


Denver and New Orleans, pioneering cities that were first to adopt common enrollment, significantly leveled the playing field for families. In Denver, common enrollment dramatically reduced the churn of waitlists in the weeks leading up to the start of the school year. New Orleans designed its system to eliminate waitlists for all but selective admissions schools. Thanks to common enrollment, both cities now have data on parent preferences and student enrollment in a consolidated information system and are using these systems as the launching point to build engagement with families who traditionally have been underserved in the school choice process. All parents benefit from new information tools, which provide detailed information about schools citywide.

Given all these improvements I wondered why, when I interviewed parents about common enrollment, they were tentative about the benefits of the new, streamlined system.

That’s where South Asia comes in.

Around the time I was grappling with what to make of parents’ impressions of common enrollment, I had a conversation with an energy contractor working in Pakistan. He explained that his firm is building power lines all over the country, an ambitious endeavor that strives to equally benefit families nationwide. But, building the supply lines alone won’t prevent blackouts, he explained. The root problem is not enough capacity for power generation, leading to supply shortages.

Common enrollment is like those power supply lines. It attempts to fairly and effectively distribute the available supply of schools, which is no mean feat.

But, as we learned when researching this report, parents remain concerned about the root problem: having enough high-quality schools to go around.

Our research revealed that minority families select schools based on performance just as much as white families and that all families prefer to send their kids to high-quality schools closer to home.

Though parents reported using new information tools to compare schools, and 80 percent or more students were matched to one of their top three choices, families still found it challenging to find the right school for their child and wanted more detailed, personalized information to help them choose.

Our research suggests that common enrollment systems have the best chance of success when they are accompanied by serious efforts to meet families’ demand for high-quality schools citywide. The more information that can be provided about schools, the better, along with targeted support so that families can understand how the matching process works.

District and charter school leaders in Denver and New Orleans are refining their common enrollment systems. The lessons we share in our report can be useful for other high-choice cities contemplating common enrollment.

Common enrollment may be an unsung accomplishment in the short term, but by continuing to prioritize the interests of families and supporting their efforts to not only navigate school choice but to really leverage it, these systems will assure that all families have fair access to great schools.

Join me on May 18 for a free, interactive Education Week webinar with Brian Eschbacher, director of planning and enrollment services, Denver school district. We’ll be talking about how to help parents navigate the process of choosing schools. Register here.

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