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Charter waitlists: Cap effect overstated?

Thousands on waitlists could be accommodated under current cap, says auditor

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The dispute over charter waitlists heightened last week as Citizens for Public Schools, a public education advocacy organization that opposes lifting the charter cap, issued a new assessment of the demand for charter schools. CPS asserts that the actual number of students who seek charter seats and would have greater access to them if the cap is lifted is vastly lower than that cited by charter proponents. Soon after, State Auditor Suzanne Bump weighed in.

The number of children waiting to get into charter schools continues to be a rallying cry for proponents of lifting the cap. “More than 34,000 kids” are on waitlists for the states’ charters, according to “Fact Check: Public Charter Schools in Massachusetts,” a website launched by a group of charter proponents including Race to the Top Coalition, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, the Boston Charter Alliance, the Massachusetts High Tech Council and Great Schools Massachusetts.

According to Citizens for Public Schools, if the cap is lifted, the actual number of students with greater access to charter seats is vastly smaller than that: only 15,000 students. The Office of the State Auditor also said in its statement that the waitlist counts issued by DESE are likely too large by at least several thousand entries, but did not estimate what a more accurate count would be.

“We believe that over-statement of the waitlist [count] persists,” OSA’s statement said.

When the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education released the 34,000 figure last month, it cautioned that the number likely overstates demand.

Unused seats

According to Citizens for Public Schools, if the cap was lifted, approximately 20,000 of the 34,000 waitlisted students are not enrolled at charters for reasons unrelated to the cap. This, CPS’s report states, is either because the seats exist and have not been filled, or because the seats could be created under the current cap, but have not yet been.

“If [these students] were not offered seats in charter schools, it is either because DESE has not approved as many seats as the current cap permits, or because charter schools have not filled their vacant seats,” CPS’s analysis states.

A contributing factor: Charter schools are not required to fill all empty seats, should a student leave the school.

It was not until 2010 that the state required charter schools to backfill empty seats, yet this law did not apply to all seats, said Harneen Chernow, former member of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Charter schools now are required to admit students to fill empty seats through the first half of their grade span, and high schools are required only to backfill grade 9. The schools do not have to fill vacancies after Feb. 15, she said.

However, a likely larger factor is that some schools are still growing. When permission is granted to create a new charter school or expand an existing one, the charter school’s administrators may choose to add one grade each year, gradually building up to the full enrollment level allowed. In this case, the actual enrollment at the school may fall below its stated “maximum enrollment,” because the latter number reflects all possible seats, including those that have yet to be created.

In its statement, the state auditor’s office said that 45 Commonwealth charters seem to be operating below their authorized full capacities. The statement acknowledged that this could be because during a school’s early years, it may not have built up enough to serve its full capacity and that, if this the case, waitlist counts at those schools reflect seats already provided for under the current cap. The OSA estimated there may be approximately 4,000 “unused” seats at charter schools.

“If those 45 Commonwealth charter schools are operating at less-than-full capacity while still reporting waitlists, waitlist counts could theoretically be reduced,” the statement read.

District caps

There is a cap limiting the amount each district can spend on Commonwealth charter schools — essentially restricting the number of seats the schools can offer. The waitlist numbers provided by DESE include not just students waitlisted at Commonwealth charters, but also student waitlisted at in-district Horace Mann charters.

In the words of State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office “mixing the two is misleading.” Lumping the two waitlists together obscures the demand for a spending cap lift, because it would not affect the Horace Mann waitlists. CPS reports that Horace Mann schools account for 2,700 waitlist entries.

Dom Slowey, media contact for Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, said several districts have hit their charter seat limit. This includes Boston, Holyoke, Fall River, Cambridge, Somerville, North Adams, Greenfield, Malden and Lawrence, he said, adding that Chelsea does not have enough room under it to make adding a school there viable. He said the exact size of the waitlist is not as important as the indication that there is strong demand for more charter seats.

“There are still tens of thousands of kids on the waitlists. It’s still hell for most parents, because they have very limited chance of getting their kids into charters, because there are very few seats and there are caps preventing the growths of charters,” he said. According to a MPCSA press release, more than 13,000 children have entered there names for approximately 1,400 seats in this year’s charter lottery.

Accepting admission

In its report of waitlist numbers, DESE warned that the figure is likely higher than actual demand. This is in part because some schools retain students on their waitlists for multiple years, without requiring demonstration of continued interest, DESE’s report stated. DESE also noted that presence on a waitlist does not indicate a student will necessarily choose to accept admission.

The Boston Foundation studied sixth and ninth graders who applied to charter schools between school year 2009-2010 and SY 2012-2014. According to the study, about two-third of the middle school applicants accepted at a charter schools chose to attend, and about 40 percent of high school applicants chose to accept charter schools’ admission offers. The report suggested that one reason students may not take up the offers is that those who were accept from the waitlist may receive the admission offer after they have already made plans to attend another school and do not desire to change at that point.

“Late offers may contribute to low acceptance rates, as many families have already accepted another option,” the report states.

In the Boston Public School system, children can enter up to three waitlists for their top-choice schools. The Boston Foundation study reported that while 85.6 percent of the students who were offered admission off the waitlist for their first-choice BPS school accepted the offer, only 20.1 percent of waitlisted students accepted admission offers from charter schools.

Former ESE board member Chernow noted that it is difficult to determine the significance of the charter waitlist numbers— whether is 34,000 or 15,000 — without information on how they compare to waitlists at BPS schools.