The Line or the Lottery?

How should the most desirable public schools allocate spaces?

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No issue mobilizes public school parents faster than school choice and pupil assignment. The Transition Planning Commission is going to push those hot buttons this week.

Topics will include the Memphis City Schools (MCS) optional program, charter schools, and transfer requests in both the city and county systems. Demand typically exceeds supply for spots in the most desirable schools, and that means some unhappy parents.

"I would estimate that the county schools get about 2,000 transfer requests each year and that five or six are turned down for every one that is accepted," said David Pickler, a member of the Transition Planning Commission (TPC) and the unified school board. Shelby County Schools does not have optional schools but has two International Baccalaureate high schools.

In the MCS optional schools program, 80 percent of the available spaces in the most popular schools are filled on a first-come, first-served basis of qualified applicants. The remaining 20 percent of the spaces are filled by a computer-generated random sample, subject to sibling considerations.

"There are still a lot of students who don't get in," said Linda Sklar, head of the MCS optional program.

According to the TPC agenda, "potential recommendations" include implementing a lottery system for optional, academic, and choice transfers when demand exceeds spots available.

The MCS optional schools program was started in 1975 in the wake of busing for desegregation and white flight of some 35,000 students in three years. One of its proponents was former superintendent and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who readily admitted it was designed to keep white students in the city schools.

By the 1980s, getting into schools such as Grahamwood Elementary and White Station middle and high school became a ritual for parents, who camped out at the board of education office to get a spot.

In the pre-Internet days, the particulars were pretty elaborate. At first, applicants had to be in line the whole time to hold their space, but that was modified to an initial muster of the troops followed by a succession of pre-dawn roll calls. Both of these were tough on working single parents. Over the years, "the line" started by parents gave way to bar-coded applications and a more systematic ticketing system administered by MCS.

But while that cut down on campouts, it started a new line ahead of a new start time, just like an advance sale of tickets for a hot concert or ball game. The idea of throwing all applicants into a lottery has been proposed a few times over the last 30 years but has never been adopted despite turnover on the school board and in the superintendent's office. Getting a place near the front of "the line" is the ultimate in parental involvement. A parent determined to get a kid into the school of his or her choice is a force of nature.

Charter schools aim for a different clientele but, like optional schools, are seen by their customers as a better alternative to the student's assigned regular school. They operate pretty much on an every-school-for-itself philosophy, with the founders knocking on doors to make their case to parents and prospective students. At least in terms of enrollment, a charter school's gain is some other school's loss. One of the things the TPC is studying is charter management organizations, which aim to blend the benefits of school districts with autonomy and entrepreneurship.

Kenya Bradshaw is on a TPC committee that has held several meetings with parents all around Shelby County to find out what they want from a unified system. The fairness of a lottery versus a line hasn't come up much, she said.

"Parents want access to rigorous programs at all schools, especially in art and music, gifted and talented, and special education," she said.

The TPC meets Thursday. Pickler said the goal is to have a student assignment plan by April 19th. The plan will be passed along later this year to the joint school board which could accept it, modify it, or discard it.

Meanwhile, the suburbs think they have another answer to school choice. It's called municipal school systems.

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