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Charter demand is debated after new, lower waitlist counts

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Charter demand is debated after new, lower waitlist counts
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Photo: Joanne DeCaro)

A new report from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shines some light on the debate over just how in-demand charter schools are — a key factor cited in the even more charged dispute over whether the state’s cap on charters should be lifted.

According to charter advocates, tens of thousands of children across the state are clamoring to get access to these schools and are shut out by a cap that strictly limits the available seats. Last week, DESE released its latest assessment of the number of children on charter waitlists, which lowered charter advocate’s oft-cited 37,000 figure to 34,000. Some — including DESE itself — caution that even this number likely overstates the demand for charters, due to an imprecise system of data recording. But charter school advocates say that even if an exact figure is elusive, the general picture is one of interest in charters outstripping access.

The dispute over whether or not to lift the charter cap kicked up a notch earlier this month, with Governor Charlie Baker weighing in heavily on the side of a lift and a new “fact checking” campaign released by charter advocates. A pending lawsuit and an upcoming ballot measure also could decide the cap question.

Charged history

DESE’s waitlist figures previously have come under fire. A December 2014 audit by State Auditor Suzanne Bump concluded that the way the data was reported and analyzed was so unreliable that it was impossible to accurately determine how many children were actively seeking charter enrollment.

The issues: Students who were entered on a school’s waitlist in one year could be kept on the list for subsequent years without any indication that they still sought enrollment, and the same student might be counted as a new person for each different charter at which they were waitlisted. DESE also failed to use a software application that had been designed to help eliminate duplicate entries, Bump noted.

Vague picture

DESE’s new report — released on Feb. 18 — gives its best assessment of what charter waitlist figures were as of Oct. 1, 2015. The new count: 33,900 students in combined total, with 74 of the state’s 82 charter schools maintaining lists.

However, the DESE report cautioned that some problems of prior waitlists persist.

In a department survey, approximately 75 percent of charter schools said that, for the 2015-2016 school year, they created completely new waitlists that only included students who applied for that year, instead of automatically including names from previous years’ waitlists.

Additionally, DESE added, a student’s presence on a waitlist does not mean they remain actively interested in enrolling.

“It is important to note that not every student on a charter school waitlist would necessarily accept an offer of admission if, and when, it might be proffered,” the report stated. “The number of students found on each charter school’s waitlist should not be understood as the number of students actively willing to accept an admission offer at any moment in time.”

Although the department has been making improvements, DESE said, the data still does not precisely capture how many students want entrance to charters.

“It remains impossible to quantify the exact number of students that may be actively waiting for admission to a charter school unless the Department makes speculative assumptions,” DESE reported.

New numbers, same situation

According to charter school advocates, the numbers demonstrate a pressing demand for more charter seats — even if the size of that demand cannot be pinpointed.

“Today’s announcement that approximately 34,000 students remain trapped on waiting lists for public charter schools reaffirms the massive demand from families for these great public schools — and how vital it is that we lift the cap immediately to give all families access to the public school of their choice,” said Eileen O’Connor, spokesperson for Great Schools Massachusetts.

“In spite of criticism to the contrary from charter opponents and the state auditor, the list is an accurate picture of the overwhelming demand for public charter schools,” Marc Kenen, executive director of Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in a statement.

Fact check controversy

Another recent development came in the form of a new website, launched by charter advocates to dispel what they regard as prevailing misconceptions about charter schools.

On Feb. 12, representatives of the “Fact Check: Public Charter Schools In Massachusetts” campaign — which includes Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, the Boston Charter Alliance, Race to the Top Coalition and the Mass High Tech Council — announced the website with a state house press conference attended by Governor Baker.

Among the items the campaign aims to set straight is the size of charter school waitlists. At the time, the website totaled the count at 37,000 students.

That same day, Auditor Bump responded with a statement that the campaign’s 37,000 figure misconstrues her 2014 audit. That audit found there were likely far fewer, due to duplicate and rollover entries on the lists, her statement said.

“The campaign itself needs to check its facts,” Bump wrote. “When incomplete information is presented as fact, as is the case by this campaign, policymakers are not afforded the ability to make unbiased decisions and the public is misled.”

The campaign has since updated the website to report that “More than 34,000 kids” are on the waitlists.