A Lesson in Lotteries from the District

By / 7.24.2017

Under Chancellor Antwan Wilson, the children of current and former public officials will no longer receive preferential placement in the District’s infamously competitive school enrollment system. The move follows a report from the D.C. Inspector General that former Chancellor Kaya Henderson had allowed the children of several top public officials to bypass the My School DC lottery system and enroll directly in the District’s most coveted schools.

Adopted to replace a chaotic system of individual lotteries and applications (and the occasional donated brownies), My School DC is a common lottery for a majority of the District’s public and charter schools. A computerized system uses a student’s stated preferences and randomized lottery number to determine which students receive the most demanded seats.

My School DC – and its Denver, New Orleans, and Newark counterparts – was designed for efficiency, transparency, and impartiality. A database of participating schools saves parents hours of researching, and a single, online form replaces mountains of paperwork. Information can be provided in several languages, and the process is fairly simple.

Though it can be complicated by high demand and shrinking class sizes, the lottery in theory is neutral. Those who govern it, however, are not.

Chancellor Henderson authorized the transfers under a regulation introduced during Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s tenure, which predates the district-wide lottery system in place today. Such discretionary transfers are only valid if “in the best interests of the student, and that the transfer would promote the overall interests of the school system.”

The enrollment of a high-profile student in DCPS may spur confidence in the quality of the District’s public offerings. But the condition of their enrollment—bypassing waitlists nearly 1,000 students long—undermines DCPS’s commitment to the common lottery system. In a district already troubled by intense competition, each line-jumper only deepens public distrust of DCPS’s ability to provide for all students.

As growing 21st Century School Systems implement their own lottery systems, the vulnerability of the District’s system to favoritism and Chancellor Wilson’s ban on preferential enrollments for the children of public officials should stand as both a warning and a lesson.

No system of school choice is absolutely fair. But the combination of a lottery system and similar preemptive policies can level the playing field for students regardless of social standing or parental activism.