Here's a rambly response to a friend of mine who chimed in on a recent post; I'm reposting it here not because I have some great insight to his point - you'll see below I have no insight on the matter, and in fact would like to know more on the subject, so if anyone has any info or links, let me know - but because I use the opportunity to elaborate more on the notion of how we sort ourselves residentially based on our schools.
My friend's comment: "I think it's outrageous to make parents camp out with a first-come, first-served policy. Everyone who lives in the neighborhood/boundary served by the school and pays property taxes should be treated the same. If there are too few spaces, then use a lottery system. Why should kids whose parents have to work late/early or commute far for work so they can't queue up on some arbitrary date be penalized?"
Hi Rob, nice to hear from you. I see your point and appreciate your sentiment.
The back story in our neighborhood school's case is that the University of Pennsylvania provides financial and intellectual support for the school. The school's success, as you can imagine, has gone a long way towards stabilizing what had been a dangerous and declining neighborhood; the nadir was the 1993 stabbing death, of a popular professor who lived in the neighborhood, on a sidewalk about a block from where I used to live.
After that, Penn got really aggressive about its relationship with West Philadelphia: a mortgage incentive program, expanding policing and lighting, and the elementary school relationship. We bought our house in 2000, and it quadrupled in value in seven years (!) before diminishing a tick since the peak of the housing boom. Needless to say, demand to be within the boundary lines is high among young families, to the point that there are more school-age kids than there are slots. This is leading some parents to wonder aloud whether either the school district will modify the boundary lines and/or Penn will reduce/terminate its relationship with the school.
In the meantime, all families living inside the boundaries are promised a slot starting in first grade (kindergarten is not required in the state of Pennsylvania, but from first grade, you're required by law to be able to go to your neighborhood school). So this situation is not nearly as contentious as the Santa Clara example (and others in the Bay Area, as well as the UK, I believe), in which you have a choice between multiple schools, which are not equal in quality, and so where you end up is where you're stuck with for the remainder of elementary school.
As for those scarce kindergarten slots here in University City, whether an application form followed by a lottery is fairer than simply asking parents to line up one morning, I don't know. I am fortunate, I suppose, that I am neither too poor nor too important to have a job in which I can't take an early morning off one time per child to get them enrolled in kindergarten; and I concede that other parents may not have my luxury. I'd be curious to know if anyone within the boundary lines has complained to the school that the registration process is unfair, and that a lottery system is preferable.
The bigger picture here, of course, is the extent to which we still sort ourselves according to race and class, and we do so by the mechanism of and for the reason of schooling for our kids. Which is why I feel quadruply fortunate: not only do we 1) get to send our kids to a really good school 2) that is two blocks away and is free, but 3) we bought into the boundary lines before the price appreciation and so make a ridiculously low mortgage payment each month, and 4) the dynamics of the neighborhood are such that while there has been some gentrification, the school will likely still have much more ethnic and socio-economic diversity than most elementary schools. (The school's playground is commonly referred to as "the United Nations playground," because of the many different ethnicities represented in the blur of bodies racing around all the equipment.)
Greedily, these are all really important considerations for me, and it is remarkable to be that we will not need to compromise on any of them. Especially #4 is particularly hard to find nowadays. Both of my kids have been in multiple settings in which they were the only non-black kids in the entire place; I have Asian cousins who live in upper-income neighborhoods and whose children's classrooms are all Asian, and know Asian friends who live in lower-income neighborhoods and whose children's classrooms are all Hispanic.
Race is, of course, its own determinant in some people's minds as to why they want to be in one neighborhood rather than another; and race is somewhat of a proxy for socio-economic class, as well. Independent of race, land use policies allow jurisdictions to narrow the socio-economic band from which schools are receiving students, maximum and minimum lot sizes substituting for the "no blacks, Jews, or Italians" regulations of the past, regulations which are obviously not acceptable today.
It's good for it to matter to parents about their kids going to good schools. Lucky for us, we don't have to compromise other things that matter to us, such as our kids being able to walk to school, have their school friends be their neighbors as well, and have those friends come from lots of different walks of life.
Anyway, sorry for the long and rambly response to your comment. Especially since I didn't really have anything of substance to offer you in reaction to your sentiment. I'll keep my eyes open as to how lottery systems work and let you know if some of these approaches have been found by parents and administrators to be fair. Thanks again for sharing.