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Blindsided by universal enrollment plan: How did we get here?

By Christine Carlson on Jan 29, 2014 12:29 PM

It came in like a wrecking ball ...

I’ve been subjected to hearing my 10-year-old daughter play Miley Cyrus’ song "Wrecking Ball" many times. Some parents hear this song and envision the provocative music video. I’ve come to relate it to the universal enrollment plan being proposed for Philadelphia's schools. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was blindsided.

I consider myself a fairly informed public school parent. I attend School Reform Commission meetings, participate in various workgroups, and faithfully read this publication's morning news roundup. So when the Great Schools Compact, an education-reform initiative that seeks to replace poor-performing seats with high-quality alternatives, released its agreement at the end of 2011, I didn’t recall any red flags about universal enrollment as a plan to privatize the School District’s placement office and assign students to one school. 

About a year later, I attended a meeting where Compact members presented an update on their activities. They were pretty excited at the time because the Compact had just been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to pursue three of its initiatives: creating an urban leadership academy, sharing best practices for teacher effectiveness, and producing benchmark tests to align with the new Common Core standards. There was no mention of universal enrollment as something that was actively being pursued. 

So how did we get to the point where the Compact has presented a detailed timeline to City Council outlining their plans for a third-party, fee-driven, single-choice algorithmic system? It came in like a wrecking ball, and I wondered how I could have possibly missed it. When I looked back, I found that universal enrollment, as originally presented in the Great Schools Compact, is not what is being proposed now. 

The Compact document, dated Dec. 20, 2011, does include universal enrollment as one of its commitments to action. Here is how it's described.

We will pursue a system of “universal enrollment”—i.e., aligning schools’ application procedures, from public announcements to application materials to lottery dates and other timing, as uniformly as possible. Expanding the number of high performing schools will only truly serve parents and students if they are more readily able to assess, understand and apply for the options available to them.   

As written, the Compact actually promotes a plan for universal application, a process where all schools would have one common application and one timeline for application and acceptance.  

The Compact-driven website, PhillySchoolApp, seems to support this as well. Although it does not have a common application for all schools, it does provide users with a link to all of the applications that have been made available to it. So why has the Compact taken this so far beyond its original mission? One could say it is "mission creep,” but I can’t help feeling that we are the victims of a classic bait-and-switch.

At the SRC's public strategy meeting scheduled to discuss the pros and cons of universal enrollment, held earlier this month, “universal application” and “universal enrollment” were used interchangeably by the roundtable participants. The word enrollment was used when the groups were following the written instructions distributed by the SRC, and the word application was used when describing valid problems with the current system. 

Universal application (and universal enrollment as originally defined by the Great Schools Compact) could benefit parents and students throughout the city. Given that every charter school has its own application and set timeline for application and acceptance, this process would go a long way to help parents navigate the application process and make the best decision from the available choices for their students.

The most recent proposal for universal enrollment should really be called "contracted enrollment," because it essentially privatizes the District’s application and enrollment process. This won't benefit District parents and students, but rather operators and administrators of non-District-run schools. By allowing the public school system to promote seats and place students in non-district schools, the District would lose even more students and funding, much to its detriment.

If we are going to discuss this issues, let’s make sure we are all using the right vocabulary. Whether it is universal enrollment, universal application, or contracted enrollment, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. If not, that wrecking ball is poised to do considerable damage to our public schools and our city.

Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (11)

Submitted by JMH (not verified) on January 29, 2014 1:35 pm
Universal Enrollment is like the new "buzzword" in so many districts where charters have already taken over or where there appears to be some form of state takeover. I'm hearing about it is Camden and Newark as well as Philadelphia. They are making it seam like this great amazing new tool to streamline things....but for some reason I'm getting that weird feeling like I'm about to get scammed! It's like that hair on the back of your neck stands up and you intentionally slow down and start to wonder what is really going....are they really telling me everything? Just saying....
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2014 3:34 pm
Excellent post. Thanks, Christine
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2014 4:18 pm
Besides the "Universal Enrollment" providing another tool for charters to swoop up students, it is further complicated if private / parochial schools are included. Legally, I can't imagine a private / parochial school may be included but it is the agenda of the Philadelphia School Dictatorship.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on January 29, 2014 7:29 pm
Christine, Excellent piece. UE is a significant part of the "One Newark" plan being imposed by Christie's appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson. Five principals were suspended--some have been restored--for speaking out against it.
Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on January 29, 2014 9:05 pm
I was shocked by the level of deception evidenced at the Universal Enrollment SRC meeting. Members of the working group tried to represent to those participating at our table that the process was not really that far along. Only once I pulled up the Compact meeting minutes on my smartphone did they have to change their tune and share specific information about their proposals with the group. I don't have high expectations for behavior by the district or the Compact, but having someone lie right to your face is truly infuriating. I would like to point out that a key element of the Universal Enrollment process put forth by the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact is having a third party run the process. No other district in the country does this. It represents a complete invasion of a student's privacy to share their personal information with a third party. I encourage parents concerned about data security and privacy to look into what is happening with Bill Gates' initiative inBloom in New York State. It is quite Orwellian.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on January 29, 2014 10:52 pm
Everyone at my table was incensed at the proposal and we had the owner of the software explain how it works to us. Except of course, the facilitator who stands to profit from it, and the district recorders who had to be neutral. You are right it was and is Orwellian. It is an attempt by PSP to seize control of the student placement process and direct students into its schools of choice. The Masterman students at my table figured it out right away, and they were only in 8th grade. The choice they were giving is a Hopkins choice -- no choice at all. As a student said,"You are not giving me a choice -- you are assigning me to a school." The School District of Philadelphia as the public school district needs to design, govern and manage all student placement procedures of public school students. That is the School District's responsibility and is its jurisdiction.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 29, 2014 9:40 pm
Universal Enrollment discussed at Philadelphia School Partnership meetings beginning in January 2012. See: January 8, 2014 Philadelphia School Partnership Minutes of Meetings January 2012 to September 2013:
Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on January 29, 2014 10:04 pm
Mark Gleason and several Compact members went to New Orleans in January 2012 on William Penn Foundation's dime and brought back a plan for Universal Enrollment. I wish someone in the press would investigate the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact and their relationship to the Center for Reinventing Public Education. I wonder how many Philadelphia parents and educators realize we are now part of someone's "portfolio?" Chicago, New York, Denver, Detroit, District of Columbia, Philadelphia--they are using the same playbook to destroy public neighborhood schools in urban centers across the nation. Someone please wake up and cover this story! The CRPE meeting is taking place right now, TODAY, in Houston. I wonder what the Philadelphia School Partnership will bring back this time?
Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on January 30, 2014 6:20 am
This was all predictable and predicted. We have been sold a bunch of snake oil disguised as reform and choice. And if Bill Green gets the position of head of the SRC, he will only facilitate the further deconstruction of public education in our city.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 30, 2014 2:25 pm
It never fails until we address it and say NOOO! If this agenda isn't clear by now it should be. 1) Gates foundation 2) urban leadership academy 3) align with Common Core. So after the roundtable then what happens? .
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