Any parent who has tried to find the right public school knows the frustrations of the Los Angeles Unified School District: the search for seemingly secret knowledge, the decoding of jargon that might once have been English and the hand-me-down lore from one generation of parents to the next.
With a little luck, a little skill and $24 million, things should soon be getting better.
Pressed by L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King, the Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously approved an enrollment system that should allow students and families to apply to just about any schools they choose at the same time, through one online application.
The project is central to King's strategy for reversing years of declining enrollment. And registering more students is needed to help keep Los Angeles Unified financially solvent.
"It's a one-stop shop," said King, who said parents have described the numerous different enrollment processes in the current system as "too confusing."
"The idea was that we have to bring everything together in one space at one time so that all parents can have access and knowledge about what's happening in our district," King said.
Board member Richard Vladovic said he was concerned about the cost but accepted the project as part of a "strategic effort" to increase enrollment.
Getting the go-ahead on Tuesday was crucial for the district to have any elements of the new system ready by the fall.
King had wanted board approval last month but waited because she wasn't sure then that she had enough votes.
What is expected to be ready by next October will be modest.
During a six-week window, parents should be able to fill out a single online application to apply to three options for the 2018-19 school year: magnet programs, dual-language programs and a small permit program that allows minority students to attend a school in another part of the district if their enrollment would promote racial integration. Other district options are supposed to be added over the following two years.
Some of L.A. Unified's most popular programs are magnets, which also were originally designed to promote integration. Dual-language schools aim to make English speakers fluent in another language while also helping non-English speakers preserve and enhance native-language skills.
Independent charter schools are not currently part of the online enrollment plan, and it appears unlikely that the current board majority would have approved a proposal that included charters.
Outgoing board member Monica Ratliff said she is not anti-charter, but "if you open this to charter schools, then you might as well just not do this. This should be about increasing enrollment in district schools."
If the effort recruited 2,383 more students to district schools, she added, "this would pay for itself."
Board member George McKenna nearly voted against the plan out of concern about unintended consequences, including the possibility that traditional campuses could suffer from "unfair" comparisons with charters.
Charters are privately operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. About 16% of district students attend charters, which are popular with many parents and compete with L.A. Unified for students.
Resistance to including charters could crumble as soon as next month, when two board members backed by charter school supporters take office. It isn't clear, however, whether all or most charters would want to be included in the district's system.
Board President Steve Zimmer, who, like Ratliff, will be leaving the board, suggested that charters be specifically excluded: "Let us codify right now this is for our LAUSD school families."
The board stopped short of that approach but backed a revision that excludes charters during the initial three-year rollout. Another revision specifies special assistance for district schools that compare poorly to other schools based on academic performance.
When questioned at an earlier meeting, district managers heading the project could not cite a school district in which a unified enrollment system increased enrollment, but they expressed optimism and stressed the importance of providing improved service to families.
Board member Monica Garcia offered strong support.
"There is more success in some of the schools I represent than the neighborhood knows about," Garcia said. "We can create alternatives or keep letting others create the alternative. … You've got to take a risk."
The district's website currently offers a basic search that allows parents to enter their addresses and learn the names of their neighborhood elementary, middle and high schools. But the search doesn't pull up nearby schools that have available seats. It also doesn't mention particular campuses with special programs.
Various district programs also have their own application processes, forms and timelines.
Many families don't have the means or time to acquire the necessary knowledge.
The revamped online enrollment system will be located at apply.lausd.net, which already has useful, if limited, information.
Though the district wants to move beyond paper applications, the new system still will allow families to apply on paper if they choose to or lack Internet access.
7:20 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.