There’s no disputing charter school demand

In the past year, charter school naysayers have successfully convinced some media outlets to question the actual demand for charters. Take the now-politicized issue of waiting lists. Reporters in Chicago and Boston, for instance, have recently conducted “reviews” of the lists compiled by charter associations or state education departments to determine that some students appear on more than one list. This led to one headline in the Boston Globe that read, “Charter school demand in Mass. disputed.”

Of course these students may appear on multiple waiting lists. Anticipating this skepticism, however, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools this year estimated the number of individual students on waiting lists for the 2012–13 academic year. Its newest survey showed that the names of at least 520,000 kids appeared in nearly one million waiting-list entries across the country.

To put that number in context, consider that 520,000 is nearly double the number of new charter students (276,000) who actually enrolled this year, bringing the total charter sector to 2.3 million pupils.

What else should we expect? There’s been a yawning gap between charter supply and demand a long time coming. In the past five years, the number of charter school students nationwide has grown by 80 percent, while the number of new schools has grown by only 40 percent in that time. Moreover, most charters tell the Alliance they lack the space to adequately meet their current and future enrollment needs. What is there to dispute?

We’re seeing more stories that question the credibility of waiting lists now because there is momentum in places like Chicago and Boston to more rapidly expand the number of charter schools. In Boston, for instance, the Globe scrutinized charter demand in Massachusetts after district superintendents complained that lawmakers were preparing to remove a cap on the number of charters before learning whether a 53,000-student waiting list contained duplicate names.

It most certainly does contain duplicates. It’s no more unusual for parents to apply to a number of in-demand charter schools than it is for high school graduates to apply to a number of in-demand colleges in order to be wait-listed. Indeed, the National Alliance found that more established schools nationally had longer waiting lists (an average 238 students) than younger, lesser-known charter schools (which averaged 178).

And a waiting list of 19,000 students in Chicago for the 2012–13 academic year mostly applied to the Windy City’s better charters, such as the Noble Network of Charter Schools. There were 3,000 to 5,000 openings at Chicago charters in the year that ended, but they were among the city’s lower performers.

This tells us that lawmakers and the charter sector need to meet demand smartly: to improve charter school authorizing in ways that lead to performance-based charter contracts and greater authorizer accountability; to enhance facility and finance policies to enable charters to better meet demand; and to ensure that high-flying charters can replicate and that low-performing schools cannot.

That’sa better conversation to have. The demand for these schools is well established. We can safely ignore the naysayers.

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