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Date Published: February 8, 2013

Author: Dom Slowey

The Wait for Slots Will Only Get Longer Unless Legislature Lifts Caps
The number of children on wait lists at Massachusetts charter public schools has surpassed 50,000, but their chances of moving into a charter school only got slimmer this year as several communities reached state-imposed caps on enrollment.

Preliminary enrollment data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), released yesterday, show that enrollment reached 31,997, while the number of names on wait lists reached 50,392. The wait lists are largest in Boston, Springfield and Lawrence where charter growth is either frozen or nearing the cap.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the MCPSA, said the new enrollment figures are evidence that the state should lift the cap on charter public schools, particularly in areas of greatest need.

“Charter public schools provide high quality educational opportunities for children, particularly in low performing districts,” Kenen said. “Demand is highest and the need is greatest in these communities, but space is limited by arbitrary caps. How long will the Legislature and the Patrick Administration make these families wait? It’s time to lift the cap on quality schools.”

Legislation filed earlier this year would eliminate all charter caps in underperforming districts and create more room to open new charters all across the state. This legislation is part of a comprehensive effort to build on the state’s two-decade-old education reform effort raising academic standards, strengthening accountability and increasing parental choice.

“Massachusetts is recognized as having the highest quality charter schools in the nation, but we also have the most limits on charter expansion,” Kenen added. “There is no longer a reason to have arbitrary caps on enrollment. The state has done a great job ensuring that only quality applications are approved, and that charters are held to the highest standards after they open. These controls will be in place even if caps are lifted.”

Kenen noted that many families apply to more than one school leading to some duplication of names on wait lists, “but whether the number of individual children is 50,000 or 40,000, the point is that more and more families are seeking to enroll their children in charter schools every year and fewer and fewer slots will be available because of these caps.”

In Boston, the number of children on wait lists is three times larger than the number of children enrolled: 24,879 names are on charter wait lists; 7,645 children are enrolled. In Springfield, 4,125 names are on wait lists, while 2,623 children are enrolled. In Lawrence, 2,889 names are on wait lists, while 1,243 children are enrolled.

The legislation, filed by Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) and Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan), would target districts that rank in the bottom 10% academically as measured by MCAS scores. More than half of the 29 districts where the cap would be eliminated are either frozen to new charters or have room for only one more. These districts include large urban centers and several smaller communities in Central and Western Massachusetts.

These districts serve nearly 30% of the state’s public schoolchildren; 70% of the children in these districts are low-income; 60% are African American; 63% come from families where English is not the first language. In many of these communities, less than half of the students score proficient on state tests, and between a quarter and a third are failing MCAS.

The legislation will be heard before the Joint Committee on Education on May 7; on April 11, hundreds of parents from around the state will gather on Beacon Hill to meet with their legislators to push for the bill’s passage.

“Charters have proven to be the state’s best tool for closing race-and-income-based achievement gaps, and they have acted as catalysts for change in failing districts,” Kenen said. “Twenty years of experience and numerous studies have shown that the model works. It needs to be expanded, not limited, and charter-like reforms need to be adopted in districts.”

The latest study, released last month by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter schools in Boston are doing more to close race and income-based achievement gaps than any other group of public schools in America. A typical student in a Boston charter gained more than twelve months of additional learning per year in reading and thirteen months per year in math compared to similar students in district schools. Statewide, students gained about one and a half more months of learning per year in reading and two and a half more months of learning per year in math. The academic progress accelerated the longer the students remained in charters.