Inflated Charter School Waitlists

With great frequency, promoters of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools like to claim that charter schools are so great that they have very long lists of students waiting to get into them. They use such claims and “data” to argue that more charter schools are needed and that more public money should be spent on creating and multiplying more privately-operated charter schools.

However, many reports show that such waitlist numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt because they are usually inaccurate and misleading for various reasons. For example, a recent report from the North Carolina State Board of Education reported that:

During the 2019-2020 school year, over 117,000 North Carolina students were enrolled in [200] charter schools. As of October 1, 2020, over 126,000 North Carolina students are enrolled in charter schools. Self-reported data from the state’s charter schools indicate that 78% of charter schools had a waitlist totaling nearly 76,000 students statewide. (p. 3)

But in a footnote attached to this observation, the report notes that this “Figure may include duplicates, as students are often waitlisted at multiple charter schools.” An article from NC Policy Watch states: “76,000 names on waitlists aren’t the same as 76,000 students.” Names that appear on waitlists at multiple schools can result in a large overcount. Thus, for example, when one student is on multiple school’s waitlists, they are counted as being on each school’s waitlist. In other words, one student could be counted two, three, or more times, thereby inflating the final waitlist number. Such data could cause people to “mistakenly think that demand for charter schools is a lot higher than it actually is.”

A related waitlist overcounting problem is highlighted by Durham (North Carolina) school board member Natalie Beyer:

Families apply to multiple magnet schools, charter schools and private schools often in multiple counties for individual students. After lottery results, families choose a single school but do not remove their child from waiting lists and as a result those individual school waiting lists often include multiple duplications and are not an accurate reflection of demand for charter schools. (emphasis added)

The real number of students on charter school waitlists is usually significantly lower than what is officially misreported.  ((In fact, many charter schools around the country fail to meet their enrollment projections. Numerous charter schools are under-enrolled. California, with the most charter schools in the country, is a good example of this.)) While school privatizers profit from such misleading data, the public does not benefit from misrepresentative data.

In 2014, the National Education Policy Center produced a policy memo titled: Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to be Skeptical About Charter School Waitlist Numbers Researchers showed that student waitlists for charter schools are highly inflated and misleading.

Similar overcounting problems were reported in a 2016 Massachusetts news article titled Charter School Wait Lists May Not Be What They Seem.

In March 2021, Texas AFT had this to say about bogus charter school waitlist numbers:

In the past, the charter industry often claimed there were anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 students on a “waitlist” they maintained and used this number to argue for even more state dollars for a duplicate education system—one that is more costly than real public schools and lacks any voter accountability. A new law required TEA [Texas Education Agency] to request waitlist information from charters and found only 55,000 on this self-reported “waitlist.” The numbers still seem inflated considering the millions that charter schools spend on television advertising (including Super Bowl and World Series ads), glossy mailers, and even billboards on IH-35 trying to attract students.

Additional research would likely show that inflated charter school waitlist numbers are more common than initially thought.

While it is understandable that the private interests that own-operate deregulated charter schools would make misleading data claims to advance their school privatization agenda, the public must not tolerate such distortions and should take action to stop misreporting and the flow of public funds to privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools. Public money belongs to public schools and the destiny and use of this money must be determined by the public without the influence of any private interests. Public money must stay in public hands regardless of whether or not charter schools have waitlists. No pretext should be tolerated for funneling money from the public sphere into the crisis-prone charter school sector. Even if 20 million students were on charter school waitlists, this is not a justification for transferring public money to private interests. Public funds must not fall under the control of narrow competing private interests. This will only distort the economy and exacerbate many other problems. Pay-the-rich schemes harm the general interests of society.

Charter schools are not public schools; they are privatized, marketized, corporatized education arrangements that serve a fraction of the nation’s youth. Charter schools have no legitimate claim to public funds. They are run by unelected individuals, focus on revenue and profit, cannot levy taxes, are frequently mired in corruption, regularly engage in numerous shady real estate deals, often hire uncertified teachers, and usually intensify segregation. Homeless students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners are consistently under-represented in charter schools. And unlike public schools, charter schools spend millions of dollars on advertising and marketing their schools to mostly vulnerable minority families. This enormous sum of public money would be better used for classroom teaching and learning. If privately-operated charter schools wish to grow and multiply, they must do so without public funds, assets, and resources.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.