Documentation supporting CPS statement on charter school waitlist numbers

Contrary to exaggerated and shifting claims that tens of thousands of students are on charter school waitlists because of the cap, a Citizens for Public Schools analysis of state data suggests the number of students affected is actually less than 15,000, probably thousands less.

When the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued its latest report on waitlists Feb. 18, 2016, a group campaigning to lift the cap said, “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.”

Gov. Baker has made similar statements.

The 34,000 figure is down significantly from the 53,000 that the charter school association claimed in 2013. State Auditor Suzanne Bump and others found the numbers to be inflated, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) changed its reporting system, although it did not follow all of Bump’s instructions. Those changes led to last month’s figure of 34,000.

CPS’s analysis found that:

Seven of the schools included in DESE’s total are not Commonwealth charter schools.
Lifting the cap would have no effect on them or their waitlists. They are “in-district” Horace Mann charters, which operate as part of regular school districts. These schools had waitlists totaling more than 2,700, almost all in Boston. It is unclear from DESE figures whether any of these students are also on Commonwealth charter school lists that could be affected by lifting the cap.

Many students on the waitlists may no longer want to attend charter schools.
Eighteen Commonwealth charter schools roll over their lists from year to year, regardless of whether students are still interested. This was one of the issues that Auditor Bump raised.

After her critical report, DESE told charter schools to stop this practice. But DESE also told the schools they could keep rolling over the lists they already had. According to the recent DESE report, 18 schools accepted that offer.

These 18 schools make up 27 percent of the Commonwealth charter schools in the DESE report, but their waitlist numbers amount to 45 percent of the total. They include the four schools with the longest lists, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, Foxboro Regional Charter School, Sabis International Charter School and Boston Collegiate, which have a total of 12,000 students on their lists. There is no way to tell from the DESE report how many of these students are really “waiting.”

Of the students on Commonwealth charter school waitlists, most are there for reasons that have nothing to do with the charter cap.
If they 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.

These students could be accommodated without lifting the cap.

Nearly 20,000 students are in this category, leaving about 14,500 outside the cap. The 14,500 include many of the students on rolled over waitlists and virtually all of the students waitlisted for schools that are not Commonwealth charters, so the true number is probably considerably smaller.

About 2,000 of the students on waitlists are supposedly waiting for 10th, 11th and 12th grade seats.
Many charters refuse to accept students in these grades, even when high attrition rates open plenty of seats. Lifting the cap will not change this controversial practice.

Foxboro Regional Charter School, for example, reports 67 students in the 12th grade this year. Four years ago, when this age cohort was in 8th grade, there were 110. (This information is online at Meanwhile, Foxboro Regional reports 201 students on the waiting list for 12th grade. Why hasn’t the school accepted some of these students to fill vacancies? It’s not because of the charter cap. The school takes students from 20 communities, many of which are nowhere near their caps.

Many students who apply to charter schools choose not to attend when they are offered seats.
A 2013 study conducted for the pro-charter Boston Foundation found that 47 percent of Boston students who were offered seats in charter school lotteries turned them down. They may have entered the lottery to keep their options open, and then they made a different choice.

See Table 3 on page 8 of the study for these findings.

The researchers also noted that “the odds of receiving a charter offer are roughly comparable to the chances of receiving a first-choice assignment in [a Boston district school].”

This year, the Boston School Department reports a total of 20,161 students on district school waitlists, not counting Horace Mann charter schools. Students can be on as many as three district waitlists. If all students are on the maximum of three, there are 6,721 unique students on district school waitlists. If waitlisted students are on an average of two district school waitlists, the number would be 10,081 unique students on BPS waitlists.

Meanwhile, 12,075 Boston students are reported to be on charter school waitlists. That number includes 2,753 students on Horace Mann charter school waitlists, not affected by the cap. It also includes the waitlists of two Commonwealth charter schools that roll over old waitlists. Boston district schools do not roll over their lists. So while we do not have exact numbers, the waitlists for Boston’s Commonwealth charters and for its district schools appear to be comparable.

Where to find DESE spreadsheets and our analyses of DESE data
This workbook shows the schools that were included in DESE’s waitlist total even though they are Horace Mann charters. We also tabulated the number of students listed for Commonwealth charters that roll over their waitlists. Click on the “Oct2015 Schools” tab.

(The total for all schools is higher than the “unduplicated” count because some students are on waitlists for more than one school.)

Click on the tab labeled “Oct2015 Grade” to see the number of students on waitlists for each grade, including grades 10, 11, and 12.

The tab labeled “Oct2015 School x Grade” shows the number on each school’s waitlist broken down by grade. The Foxborough Regional waitlist numbers come from this spreadsheet. The shrinkage of this school’s current 12th grade student cohort is shown in DESE’s enrollment-by-grade report, posted here.

DESE’s waitlist report, with a link to the appendix containing the spreadsheets that CPS analyzed, is posted here.

Click here  to see a workbook that compares DESE’s information on seats available under the charter cap for each community with the number of students from that community on charter waitlists.

Our analysis was based on a DESE workbook that can be found here. Under “FY 2016,” click on the last spreadsheet, “FY16 Projected NSS NearCap.”

The DESE spreadsheet shows a 9 percent cap for most districts, but a 17 percent cap for districts in the lowest 10 percent according to DESE’s formula for judging district “performance” based on test scores. In 2010, the legislature passed a law allowing up to an 18 percent cap in those districts, but phased in the increase. For the current school year, it is 17 percent. Next year it will be 18 percent.

Two districts, Lawrence and Malden, are in a more complicated situation: They once were in the lowest 10 percent but are no longer. When they were in the lowest 10 percent, DESE approved seats above the 9 percent limit in these two cities. Those seats continue to be available, but new seats cannot be approved.

Charter schools drawing students from Lawrence have 420 unfilled seats, so the number of students on the waitlist potentially affected by lifting the cap is the waitlist number minus 420.

In the case of Malden, there is a regional charter school with 400 unfilled seats, but that school draws students from many other communities in addition to Malden. We made the conservative assumption that all of those 400 seats are available to students from the other communities and none are available to reduce the Malden waitlist.