Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: A Technocratic Solution Meets a Nontechnical Problem: Student Assignment Mechanisms and Parents' Responses

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 10:15 AM
Japengo (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jon Valant1, Betheny Gross2 and Patrick Denice2, (1)Tulane University, (2)University of Washington
School choice reforms will best serve families when families select high-quality schools that suit their children well.  Choices like these are good for students and the system: students are more likely to be placed in schools that meet their needs and the demand for schools creates incentives for schools to offer high-quality, desirable programs.  Yet many obstacles stand in the way of good decision-making.  Often, families confront numerous school application processes with different deadlines, requirements, and admissions criteria. Our own surveys show that parents find these processes difficult to deal with and, worryingly, low-income parents find them more difficult than their more affluent peers.

Some cities have responded to this concern by instituting centralized enrollment systems that coordinate school requests and placements.  In New Orleans, for example, families rank up to eight schools (in up to three rounds), and then a matching algorithm assigns students to schools based on these rankings, schools’ admissions criteria, and seat availability.  The system designers tout that these processes promote fairness, transparency, and efficiency.  Indeed, they may, by reducing transaction costs for families and schools, limiting schools’ ability to manipulate which students they accept, and carefully sorting through families’ ranked preferences.

However, centralized enrollment systems bring challenges of their own, not least of which is the task of translating a complicated matching process into clear, believable directions for school-choosing families.  If families misunderstand the request and matching process, attempt to “game” the system via strategic behaviors, or otherwise act contrary to the system’s designers and operators, then the system might not produce the types of high-quality school fits and positive competitive pressures it promises. 

Little research has examined the behaviors of school-choosing families in centralized enrollment systems, despite the increasing presence of these systems.   This paper explores data from multiple rounds of school requests and placements through the centralized enrollment system in New Orleans (the “OneApp”).  We use these data to describe, classify, and quantify evidence of various types of school chooser behaviors, focusing especially on indicators of how families understand (and misunderstand) and trust (and distrust) the process.  In doing so, we generate knowledge to improve the design and operation of these enrollment systems.