What does it really take to “win” the school choice lottery?

You’ve seen the films—Waiting for “Superman”, The Lottery—you’ve heard the stories about parents anxiously filling out request forms months in advance in New York City or camping out for the “magnet school scramble” in Cincinnati. And you’ve even heard me talking about it on this very blog. Sometimes winning the lottery is the only thing you as a parent care about. That school is the best thing you can find for your child and there’s very little you yourself can do to access it aside from being lucky. If you don’t get in, do you have a Plan B and are you really willing to put yourselves through this again next year when the outcome could be the same?

Through luck and providence, we had a very good Plan B put together: another private school. More tuition, more religion, applying for the lottery again next year, another decision to be made for high school in just a couple of years. But it would work.

It turns out that several weeks after our first-round disappointment, more seats were opened in that popular “holy grail” school I told you about and one of my children won the second round lottery and got in.

Yep. Just one of the two.

We were then faced with several dilemmas: undoing Plan B for one, tackling the quick turnaround of admissions paperwork, figuring out how logistically to send our twins to two different schools in different parts of town—one Catholic and Montessori, the other public and STEM, and reconciling the fact that the one who would likely benefit from the STEM school the most wasn’t the one who got in.

And then nearly a week later a “sibling spot” opened up, and we were forced again to change gears, dismantling Plan B entirely (yep, you guessed it – still got to pay tuition for a while due to “contracts signed”), more paperwork, very short deadlines, transportation headaches, etc.

As we were scrambling to take care of these things, it struck me that we were lucky. Very lucky. We got what we wanted. We actually won the lottery and our children were going to the school that we believed would give them the best path through high school and into college. But it shortly occurred to me how very many things were far outside of that one (or two in our case) stroke of “luck”.

My wife and I have supportive employers who don’t mind if we take extra time at lunch to fill out paperwork or chat with the pediatrician. We are fluent in English and can navigate complex paperwork with a tight turnaround. We have reliable transportation that can take the place of a bus if necessary. We have the $100 available to deposit for the laptop every child must have before starting school. We know how to operate them too and can help our children as they learn how to do it. They have a reading assignment to complete before school starts, they are weeks behind their peers and the library’s copies are all reserved with dozens of people ahead of us. Thank you internet and Visa!

At each turn, I thought: what if our lives were not as they are? What if we needed two jobs each to keep a roof over our heads? What if “lunch break” meant the time driving from one job to the other? What if “driving from one job to the other” meant relying on friends or public transportation? What if freeing up $100 was not a goal that could be accomplished in a day? Or a week? What if all those questions on the application required a translator? What if “pediatrician” meant public health nurse? What if taking care of elderly parents came first? What if the library was the only source of books for us?

If our lives were not as they are, even in one of the ways above, it could have meant the loss of that lottery seat. Plan A? Plan B? It doesn’t matter when finding and accessing the right school for your child requires equal parts serendipity and work.

And all I could conclude is: it shouldn’t be this way. All educational options should be high quality, open, and readily available for families who want them. Families in Cleveland are letting seats in good schools go empty, and I can only imagine that inability to get through the hoops is part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad “I got mine,” but I am acutely aware of the fact that so many others did not. And of those who did have their number come up, how many had difficulty converting that “win” into what they actually needed: a seat in a great school?

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