Let’s Enable a System of Choice in Baton Rouge Education
Every year about this time, roughly two months into the new school year, a mad (and maddening) dash kicks off among well informed families to begin the application and enrollment process for their children for the following school year. That’s right, parents who understand how the system works begin navigating the city’s complex and convoluted enrollment processes ten months before their children actually enroll. In Baton Rouge, attending a high-quality school has historically been contingent on knowing the right people, being able to write a big check, or meeting complex eligibility requirements accompanied by excessive paperwork and deadlines that may cause whiplash. And, if we’re being honest, these high-quality schools are not equally available to all families. If you think this is by accident, think again - this is exactly the way the system was intended to work, and it is to the detriment of a stronger community. We can do better. We must do better for our community.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame any parent for doing whatever it takes to ensure their child ends up in a great school. But it should not be this complicated. All families should have excellent school options that meet their needs. Our city's future prosperity depends on a better educated and resourced citizenry. We must address the shortcomings of the existing system by supporting families in navigating and accessing schools that are the best fit for their children.
Last month, I had the opportunity along with other community leaders to visit and engage with education stakeholders in Indianapolis and Kansas City. Each of these cities confronted the convoluted enrollment processes by recognizing that the city and all of its children are better off if the right to choose a school is able to be exercised fairly by all parents, not just those with privileged access. Powered by this belief, efforts were led by nonprofit organizations and city leaders to enact citywide application and enrollment processes that enhance the choices and opportunities available to students and families.
Kansas City’s public school enrollment is similar to Baton Rouge; nearly half of students are enrolled in a public school of choice, like a magnet or charter school. KC is a step ahead of us, though, because its community leaders provide information to families and students about their options. Show Me KC Schools is a nonprofit organized to showcase all school options, both public and private, to families in the community. This grassroots effort to involve stakeholders closest to families is important - families must first know they have a choice, and then they can rely on those they trust and with whom they share similar values to help identify the right options for their children. In this spirit, we helped launch Red Stick Schools Guide now run by the Baton Rouge Alliance for Students. This guide is the only one in the city where a family can have a one-stop-shop view of all school opportunities in the area.
In Indianapolis, a city where the school district is choosing to empower educators to run schools, nearly three-quarters of students actively choose a school that’s right for them. Given the near universality of choice, the city supports a nonprofit-run enrollment platform that allows families to use one application to apply to multiple schools. This system ensures fairness for families by empowering them with access to all their options and ensuring every child is accounted for. In Baton Rouge, we recently took over management of a common application platform created by the state called EnrollBR. Today, EnrollBR features public charter schools and some private schools that accept publicly-funded scholarships. We are hopeful the District’s magnet and direct-run schools along with other private and parochial school options will join the platform. This expansion will help us move toward a city that puts families first when it comes to school enrollment.
While visiting these forward-thinking cities that are addressing gaps in their education systems, we realized Baton Rouge already has many tools that can help families more easily understand and navigate school choice. But we need more than smart tools. We need leaders who are courageous enough to change the status quo by endorsing a system that prioritizes all students and families, not just those that have the means to apply to and attend private or magnet schools. All families matter, and all deserve the chance to experience the rich school opportunities in our community and access them regardless of who they know or where they live. Equitable enrollment for all students is a marker of a thriving city, and this vision is within our reach. Will we take advantage of this opportunity?