Photo of three children sitting around a circular table using laptops. Photo by Independence Learning Commons, Flickr CC

Missing the school bus is a familiar nightmare for parents everywhere. But for families in school districts with school choice policies there is a bigger timing concern: registering for the school lottery. School choice policies, such as charter schools or open enrollment, allow families to select a school that is different than their traditional neighborhood school, but all of these policies require that families navigate a selection process. New research from Kelley Fong and Sarah Faude finds that missing initial registration deadlines is common and closely linked to race and class, making the timing of registration a key part of educational inequality under school choice.  

Fong and Faude worked with Boston Public Schools, which no longer has traditional neighborhood schools. Instead BPS uses a “compulsory choice policy” that requires new families to register and rank schools in person at a registration center. School registration and assignment for new families begins in January, and families that wait to register later are limited to schools that still have availability — which means that they cannot access top-ranked schools. Administrative data from the district revealed clear race and class stratification in registration timelines. During 2015 and 2016, 83% of white kindergarteners registered in the first round, compared with only 53% of black kindergarteners. Additionally, almost half of kindergarteners in lower-income neighborhoods missed the January deadline.   

The authors conducted a survey of families who registered in the summer (those who missed all of the school lottery deadlines and must register for remaining spots on a first-come, first-serve basis) and interviews with selected summer registrants. They found that family instability and complex bureaucratic procedures were the most common reasons for late summer registration. Half of the summer registrants indicated a recent move, while others indicated a change in child custody arrangements, changes in family finances, unfamiliarity with the system, and navigating multiple school systems. Instead of compulsory choice opening paths to desired schools, a mismatch between family circumstances and bureaucratic processes meant that many families were effectively shut out of the best schools. This research shows that when and how families register for schools is a major concern for those interested in educational equity.