Stunting Growth: The Impact of State-Imposed Caps on Charter Schools

Todd Ziebarth
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
January 2006

The nation's umbrella charter school advocacy organization is off to a good start in 2006 with this "issue brief" - the first of five planned for the year. It summarizes and evaluates, in plain English, the various caps that states place on charter school growth and their effects. The best-known caps are ceilings on the total number of schools allowed in a state, such as New York's 100-school cap which threatens Joel Klein's charter expansion plans (see here). Another sort of restriction limits the number of charters that particular authorizers may approve. This cap exists in Indianapolis, among other places, where Mayor Bart Peterson, despite a track record as one of the best charter sponsors in the nation, may only launch five new charters every year. There are also caps on the number, or percentage, of students who are allowed to enroll in charter schools - either statewide or, absurdly, within individual charter schools. (Connecticut's charters, for example, can't enroll more than 300 students each.) All told, 25 states plus the District of Columbia place some sort of arbitrary limits on charter school growth; in 10 states, according to NAPCS, these caps are "severe constraints on charter schools' ability to serve families who need them now." So why do states have such limitations on their lawbooks? And how can we fix the problem? As the National Alliance recognizes, some well-meaning policymakers created caps as a response to concerns about charter school quality. But, as Ziebarth explains, "Caps have proven to be blunt instruments that don't lead to high-quality charter schools." If improving quality is the goal, legislators should at least allow high-performing charters - and authorizers - to keep expanding. Instead of limiting them, governments should provide incentives and funds for these successful entities to serve more children. But, of course, most of these caps are not there to improve school quality, but because of raw political compromises. In order to placate the education establishment, charter supporters accepted a future of anemic growth and miniscule scale. It's time to renegotiate those deals, as charter advocates intend to do this year in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois. This brief is a good roadmap. Read it here.

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