New waitlist numbers quickly stir charter school debate

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STATE HOUSE — There are 32,646 Massachusetts students are on waitlists for admission to charter schools, according to updated figures released Thursday by the Department for Elementary and Secondary Education.

The department’s report, based on March data, shows that 74 of the state’s 78 charter schools have waiting lists of students who applied for seats but did not gain admittance. Most of the students — 27,089 — were on waitlists for just one school, while the remaining 5,557 appeared on more than one waitlist.

More than 9,000 of the students had originally applied for charter admission before March 31, 2014.

An initiative petition likely to appear on November’s ballot will ask voters whether to raise the cap on charter school enrollment in Massachusetts, which could allow new charters to be issued or existing schools to expand. Petition sponsors plan next week to turn in a final batch of signatures needed to lock in ballot access.

“Today’s announcement that nearly 33,000 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 to give all families access to the public school of their choice,” Eileen O’Connor, spokesperson for Great Schools Massachusetts, said in a statement.

Advocates for traditional public schools, which accept all eligible students, have resisted the push to expand charter schools, which operate with more independence, and argued for education reforms that lead to improvements across the K-12 public education spectrum.

The Senate this session passed legislation tying charter school expansion to major long-term education funding increases. The House this session has not taken up the Senate bill or passed charter legislation of its own and it appears voters will settle the issue.

In response to the new charter waitlist figures, the campaign opposing the charter expansion ballot question highlighted the 15,000 children on waiting lists for pre-kindergarten education.

“We should be expanding access to early childhood education rather than lifting the cap on privately run charter schools,” the Save Our Public Schools campaign said in a statement.

Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said students on charter waiting lists were “stranded” there, “hoping for an opportunity that likely will not come unless arbitrary enrollment caps are lifted at the ballot box this November.”

The schools with the largest waitlists were Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, with 3,643 students; Sabis International Charter School, with 2,775 students; and Foxborough Regional Charter School, with 2,575 students, according to the report. At each of those three schools, the bulk of the names were added to the waitlist before March 31, 2014.

The education department last released a waitlist estimate in February, when it used figures from October to conclude 33,903 students were awaiting charter admission.

Education officials said Thursday’s report reflected an “ongoing effort to increase the timeliness and accuracy of charter school waitlist data.”

In December 2014, Auditor Suzanne Bump found charter school waiting list numbers were “significantly overstated” because children were on multiple lists or names were rolled forward from one year to the next without verification by state education officials.

After the February waitlist report, Bump released an analysis of the numbers, finding the department had made progress in terms of accuracy but “significant issues” remained with data collection and waiting list rollovers.

A Bump spokesman said Thursday that the auditor’s office had no plans at this point to conduct an analysis of the most recent waitlist figures.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service