Impossible Admissions Tests Prevent Many Poor Students from Getting Into New Orleans’ Best Schools

New Orleans no longer has “right to attend” neighborhood schools.

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Do some public schools, allegedly open to all comers, go out of their way to attract families with more money, more connections, and more flexibility—and shut out families who lack those resources in the process? It’s a familiar question in the age of school choice, one that a recent New Orleans Times-Picayune report tackled head on in a disturbing story on the admissions’ processes at three of the city’s most “exclusive, privileged” public charter schools. (Most schools in New Orleans are charters.)

In post-Katrina New Orleans, there is no longer such an institution as a “neighborhood school”—all families must apply for admission to their preferred schools. Since this process can get pretty onerous, the vast majority of New Orleans charter schools use a transparent common-lottery application, similar to the ones used in other cities like New York and Washington, D.C. These applications—and I speak from personal experience—generally take little to no effort to complete: You plug in your desired schools in order of preference, note any priority (geographic proximity, sibling enrollment), hit “send,” and in due time a computer algorithm matches you, or not, with available slots.

But a small minority of New Orleans public schools has yet to embrace the common application, known as OneApp, which was designed to make the admissions process both easy and equitable. The Times Picayune story examines the “mind-numbingly complex application processes that test a parent’s savvy, access to transportation and ability to get off work” at three of these schools, which happen to be among the top-ranked in the city.

If you want to send your child to one of the three schools in this story, you must complete “a unique set of requirements so complicated that parents have made spreadsheets to keep track of the steps,” including some combination of: parent attendance at a school curriculum meeting (no tardiness allowed); a questionnaire; an application hand-delivered to the school during business hours (but not, at one school, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), a “portfolio of the student’s work,” whatever that could possibly mean for an early-elementary-age kid; the child’s attendance record; and “scores from a single sitting of a standardized exam, with no retests allowed.”

One of the schools requires a “hand-drawn self-portrait, a second piece of artwork and a handwriting sample” for prospective kindergarteners. (Oh, and this work can only be submitted in a specific color of folder that changes every year.) It’s no wonder that one parent in the article compared the admissions process to competing in the Hunger Games.

As a result, compared to the city average of 7 percent gifted students, these schools have gifted populations of 24, 26, and 33 percent. (Leaving aside the question of what “gifted” even means, that’s pretty lopsided). Two of the schools have a wildly disproportionate number of white students in an overwhelmingly black school population.

School officials claim that of course these hurdles don’t put off disadvantaged families; their admissions lotteries are as “transparent and fair” as any other school’s. It’s surely just a coincidence, then, that in a city with some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country, only a certain cohort gets to attend the French Immersion Montessori.