When it's time to enroll in school in Philadelphia, students face a bewildering array of choices: Neighborhood public school? Cyber school? Charter? Private or religious school? What about a specialty district school focused on science? Performing arts? International affairs?
Then, applying for admission can entail reams of red tape. Forms, requirements and due dates vary depending on the number and kinds of schools involved.
District officials are now wondering if universal enrollment can simplify things. The increasingly popular but contentious model would offer families a central online gateway to research their options and submit one application with ranked preferences, regardless of school type.
Opponents say the system actually reduces choice because a computer algorithm generates a single match for students. But supporters contend it can streamline planning for districts and level the playing field for residents without the means to master the hodgepodge registration process.
"There's many different deadlines, many different applications, and it really privileges the parents who have the time resources and connections to make that work," said Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer.
Rolled out over the past few weeks in Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., universal enrollment has also been adopted in cities including Denver and New Orleans. But the concept has met a lot of resistance in Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest districts.
Opposition stems partly from a proposal that enrollment would be managed by a private education reform group. Critics wonder about possible bias favoring charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently; they also object to giving students' personal data to a third party. In other cities, education officials run the system.
Additional concerns include whether the nearly broke Philadelphia district should be spending money on the initiative; how competition could increase for the small number of high-performing public schools; and if the city's Catholic schools can legally be included in the mix.
Philadelphia students can attend their neighborhood schools with no problem. If they want to attend a citywide school — perhaps one with a special curriculum — a paper application is currently required. About 60 percent of students apply to special-admission high schools, partly because many neighborhood schools are considered low-performing.
Students can list five district-operated schools in a single application, submit their qualifications, then choose from among the schools to which they are admitted. But that creates planning headaches for administrators, who can end up overseeing waiting lists or lotteries.
Those who want to consider charter or religious schools in the city often have to visit those schools individually to apply, which can be hard for low-income families without cars. Access to online applications is an issue for some residents.
In addition, Shorr noted, some charters are wrongly charging application fees and asking prospective students about their special education needs. A common application could remedy that, she said.
Yet school participation in universal enrollment is also an issue: Some charters have opted out of the single application in New Orleans, Newark and Washington.
That's also a possibility in Philadelphia, where tensions run high between charter and district schools because they compete for limited resources. Overall, about 31 percent of the district's 196,000 students are enrolled in charters.
Christine Carlson, whose daughter will be applying to Philadelphia high schools in three years, said the idea for a unified application is "terrific." But the concept of a single, computer-generated match gives her pause.
"To me, that really limits choice," Carlson said. "I don't want them just placing a student in a school."
Some systems allow students who don't like their selected school to try for another match in a second round. But chances are slim that their preferred choice still has empty seats.
Scholar Academies' two charters in Washington participate in the new universal system called My School DC. Jana Wilcox, chief operating officer of Scholar Academies, has been working to bring a similar program to Philadelphia, where the company has three schools.
Figuring out how to "simplify the process for families seems like something we can all rally around," Wilcox said. She noted the Washington program generates valuable data for her schools, including how they rank among applicants.
Denver enrolled its students through SchoolChoice for the first time this year. The universal model includes all 186 charter and district-operated schools in the city, as well as hybrid models known as innovation schools.
Marketing director Marissa Ferrari said the district scrapped its old model of multiple applications and multiple deadlines because it was "not as equitable" as it should have been.
Under the new system, 92 percent of applicants in transition years — kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades — got one of their top three choices, Denver officials said.
Educators in Philadelphia cautioned that the discussion is just beginning. "We're still very much in a listening and learning mode," said Karyn Lynch, the district's director of enrollment.
But David Hardy, founder of Boys' Latin charter school in the city, said universal enrollment won't solve the real problem.
"What they should be trying to do is expand the number of desirable options," Hardy said. "Then the market will sort itself out."