No one likes to lose. But losing in a rigged system funded by tax dollars is something else entirely. Pinellas County schools should do a better job disclosing how seats in magnet and fundamental schools are awarded and review the fairness of the system.
Parents interested in enrolling their child in a magnet or fundamental school are told they will be in a lottery, implying it's a matter of chance whether their child will win a seat. The best odds are to apply for an entry-level year: kindergarten for elementary school, sixth grade for middle school or ninth for high school.
But as Tampa Bay Times reporter Rebecca Catalanello reported earlier this month, the odds are worse than it appears. This year, more than half of all the magnet and fundamental seats were awarded to siblings of children already enrolled in the school; children of the school's faculty; children from the neighborhood; and in the case of middle and high schools, students from magnet or fundamental "feeder schools."
The result: The actual number of seats available through the so-called lottery was less than half as many as it appeared. Of the 846 slots at kindergarten programs this year, for example, 462 where filled before the first lottery draw. Osceola Fundamental High in Largo did not have a single seat readily available for a lottery applicant. All 468 students offered invitations were entitled to a seat under the school district's priority system. The 358 students who sought admission through lottery lost before the game was even played and didn't know it.
This calls for more changes to the district's lottery system, tweaked last year so that parents are required to rank their magnet and fundamental requests. At schools where more children seek admission than there are seats — the vast majority — only those students who put a school first have any real shot of getting in. School district officials said they made the change to be fairer — so everyone who gets into a magnet or fundamental school really wanted that particular school.
But it's not fair if the real odds of winning aren't clear. If the district does nothing else, it should preregister those students who are entitled to a slot in a magnet or fundamental program and then advertise the number of true lottery seats that remain. That way, no family would waste their first choice on a school like Osceola High, where no seats were available. Or perhaps the some 50 disappointed families who ranked Lakeview Fundamental Elementary first, for example, would have gambled elsewhere. The small St. Petersburg school filled all but nine of its 54 kindergarten seats before drawing the first lottery pick, but the families who ranked it as their first choice didn't know that up front.
That's not fair. Not by a long shot.