City-wide public school lottery in Washington, DC delivers a decade of access and increased equity

Public School Choice

November 7, 2023

For 10 years, the District of Columbia has empowered families to select the best schools for their children through My School DC, the District’s common application and public school lottery system. 

Since the launch of My School DC in 2013, DC has matched more than 150,000 students to schools of their choice, and we continue to make the system more accessible for all students and families. For example, in the last year more than 2,500 families qualified for our equitable access preference – available to students in the foster care system or experiencing houselessness, qualifying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (SNAP), or high school students that are one year older or more than the expected age for the grade in which they are enrolled. In addition to the lottery preference, a number of public and public charter schools also have designated seats for students who qualify for the equitable access preference. These equitable access mechanisms help remove long-standing barriers for some of our highest needs families.

We know from experience that a public school lottery system with countless, conflicting timelines and various applications does not meet the needs of our communities. A decade ago, it would not be uncommon for families to take multiple days off from work to apply to schools – one at a time. Some schools even managed waitlists on a first-come, first-served basis, resulting in parents lining up for hours – sometimes as early as the day before – for the best spot. That decentralized admissions process left busy, time-strapped families disadvantaged and left schools scrambling to finalize enrollment during the first weeks of the year.

Today, 234 schools and 59 different local education agencies participate in My School DC, making it one of the largest unified enrollment systems in the country, with more than 16,000 students matched this year. It’s also the mechanism for enrolling our youngest learners; with more than 7,300 applications to DC’s free universal pre-K 3 and 4, My School DC provides a vital onramp to public education, helping DC’s youngest scholars build needed academic and social skills even before kindergarten.

My School DC supports families in getting an equitable opportunity to select the schools that best match their children’s needs and interests in addition to those that they would have previously been zoned for. It continues to serve as a powerful informational tool, educating families about their public and public charter school options, as well as allowing decision-makers to account for equity and fairness in the process. By design, the My School DC system and its data yield opportunities to iterate and enhance equity and access for District families.

Increasing equitable access is key. A robust, unified enrollment system is one way to level the playing field, and we’re enthusiastic to continue improving our system for every DC family.

We’ve learned many lessons over the past 10 years. By listening to our community, we’ve created a system that provides both choice and access for families furthest from opportunity. We’ve arrived at this point thanks to bold leadership and family advocacy. And we do this work in partnership with families. The My School DC Parent Advisory Council, or PAC, a group of parents from DCPS and public charter schools and all eight wards of the District, provides a sounding board for the desires and needs of participating families. Parents and guardians on the PAC provide input on the design and implementation of policies, programming, and new initiatives; serve as ambassadors of information to their respective schools and communities; and advise My School DC’s governing body on significant policy decisions. Their advocacy has been essential in many of our improvements since day one.

A thriving education system relies on consistent family engagement. Parents are the first teachers in a child’s life and their biggest advocates, and it is critical to engage with families – at every step of the process – to gather their thoughts, input and guidance, and listen as we work to ensure every child across the District has access to high-quality learning experiences at every level.

Since 2014, the My School DC team has hosted EdFEST, the District’s public school fair, to help families learn about the many public school options available to them. In the nine years since the event began, more than 14,000 families have participated – meeting school teams personally before making the important decision of where to apply. My School DC also offers families access to a multilingual website and hotline, both critical tools for making choices accessible to more families in the District. 

Other optimizations over the years have improved the common lottery to match students with the schools they want most – students are only waitlisted at schools ranked above where they are matched or enrolled – and ensure students are only matched with a school they choose. No student is matched in more than one seat, so more families are matched with their preferred school. My School DC works for our school leaders, too. By managing the waitlist system and ensuring they have their list of enrolled students well before the first day of school, it allows educators and administrators to focus their time and energy on welcoming and supporting new and returning families.

Over the last decade, DC’s unified enrollment system has consistently iterated and improved based on what we’ve heard. We are proud of the progress we have made and remain wholly committed to further improve access and opportunity for all District families. Thank you to all the families and school leaders who have moved us forward; without their collaboration, a unified enrollment system in DC would not be possible. 

To deliver on the equity and fair shot we champion, we must prioritize families farthest from opportunity – and that’s what will continue to guide our work for My School DC for years to come.


If you want to learn more about the policies that have made My School DC a success: