Friday, January 5, 2018

Why Unified Applications Can't Work

I'm shocked, I tell you. Shocked.

Einstein Charter Schools in New Orleans have been reprimanded for violating the terms of the NOLA OneApp.

Also shocked
Unified applications are supposed to be a critical part of a charter-choice system. You know-- where parents get to choose the right school for their children. Instead of tracking down and navigating several different application processes, parents just have to fill out one form. And this is just not for their benefit-- under a multi-app system, a student might be accepted by four different schools, and those schools won't know whether they have an empty seat or not until the first day in the fall.

There's a problem with the uni-app, however-- children  aren't widgets.

Under a charter-choice system, schools do compete for students. But in such a system, all students are not created equal. Not all students are equally desirable to charter schools. Students who don't come with any extra costs to educate (no special needs, no English-as-second-language issues, no behavioral problems) are desirable. Students who make good test numbers for the school are desirable. Students who come from supportive home environments are desirable. Students who cost more, have more issues, have fewer skills, draw lower scores-- these students are not as desirable to charters.

Imagine that the Big Ten college basketball teams went to a new system in which anybody who wanted to play could fill out a single app, and a central authority would assign each student who applied to a team-- regardless of skill. Would the Big Ten shrug and say, "Well, I guess we get what we get. let's make the best of it?"

Maybe. Or maybe they would game the system like crazy.

So Einstein just went ahead and admitted some students on their own-- "outside" the OneApp system. That's after the charters manage to "nudge" students with careful marketing that signals what sort of students are or are not a "good fit" for a particular school.

Look-- the market sorts. That's what it does. That's how it works. Every business in the country sorts potential customers into categories based on desirability, and they compete for the most desirable customers. Charter schools are businesses, and so they will sort students. The most desirable students will be courted by multiple charters while, on the other end of the scale, less desirable students will be warehoused at Hot Potato Public School.

No market will tolerate rules that circumvent their sorting functions. Imagine that the government passed a new restaurant law-- everyone who wants to eat out fills out a single application and local government and "admits" them to a restaurant, which means each restaurant now has a group of customers assigned to them by the government. Chez Fancee Paunts may be assigned a bunch of burger joint fans who can't afford to pay more than $5.00 for a meal. Micky D's may find itself serving customers with complicated food allergies. All of the restaurants in town would fight back, hard, against the rule, and would look for ways to circumvent them, because all customers are not created equal.

For charter school purposes, all students are not created equal, and it only makes sense that charters would do everything in their power to exert control over which students they have to serve. That means marketing, recruiting, pushing out, and, yes, circumventing a unified application system. You can talk all day about how you want to create a system that is "fair" to students and their parents, but charter schools must by their nature be most concerned about what is most "fair" for the business interests of the school.

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