Charter school waitlist data is inflated; exact number of students is unknown

By: - April 16, 2021 6:00 am

A report touting 76,000 names on charter school waiting lists across North Carolina could give the wrong impression about demand for charters.

It’s true that interest and enrollment have grown in charters, which are public schools but free of many of the rules and regulations traditional public schools must follow. But 76,000 names on waitlists aren’t the same as 76,000 students. That’s a point even the Office of Charter Schools, the agency that regulates the state’s 200 charters, was compelled to make in its 2020 Annual Report to the General Assembly.

In fact, OCS officials, including Executive Director Dave Machado, don’t know how many students are trying get into charters because students’ names might appear on waitlists at multiple schools. This can result in an overcount.

“Even if a student is on multiple school’s waitlist, they are recorded as on each school’s list, indicating a desire to attend that school,” Machado told Policy Watch.

Each charter school reports its waitlist data to OCS.

This year’s annual OCS report advises readers in a footnote that the waitlist figure “may include duplicates, as students are often wait-listed at multiple charter schools.”

Durham school board member Natalie Beyer

However, those footnotes are absent in other recent reports that shared the data, according to a Policy Watch review. 

For example, a PowerPoint presentation delivered by an OCS consultant to the Charter School Advisory Board this week did not contain such a note. Without this explanation, anyone who does not carefully read the 109-page report could mistakenly think that demand for charter schools is a lot higher than it actually is.

“Families apply to multiple magnet schools, charter schools and private schools often in multiple counties for individual students,” says Durham school board member Natalie Beyer, an outspoken charter school critic. “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.”

Ashley Baquero, a consultant with OCS, said the 76,000 names are on waitlists of 78% of 200 charters schools – about 156 schools.

But Baquero did not make that key distinction in the PowerPoint presentation she shared with the advisory board. That means the presentation was inaccurate and misleading. “Self-reported data from the state’s charter schools indicate that 78% of charter schools had a waitlist totaling nearly 76,000 students [emphasis supplied] statewide,” the presentation read.

One reason that it’s important to differentiate between names on waitlists and actual students is because, in the past, advocates for lifting the state’s 100-school cap on charter schools cited these alleged backlogs to make the case for expanding the school choice option.

In 2012, the year before the General Assembly removed the regulatory cap on charters, the OCS reported there was a waitlist of 29,000 students after 80 of 100 schools responded to a survey.

“It stands to reason it could be above 30,000 [names on waiting lists this year],” former OCS director Joel Medley told the Carolina Journal at the time in a story headlined “Charter Waiting Lists Mount, Frustrating Parents and Educators.”

Office of Charter Schools Director Dave Machado

In 2020, interest grew in the state’s two virtual charters schools after the COVID-19 pandemic forced traditional public schools to close for in-person instruction. 

The schools reported waitlists of approximately 10,000 and asked for permission to increase enrollments.

Former lieutenant governor Dan Forest, a Republican, argued that the virtual schools should be allowed to increase their enrollments due to the long line of students waiting to enroll. As lieutenant governor, Forest was a voting member of the state board.

After some push back from Democrats, the state board authorized North Carolina Cyber Academy to increase enrollment by 1,000 students and the North Carolina Virtual Academy to increase its enrollment by 2,800 students.

However, Machado says the 76,000 names on the current waitlists includes students who want to enroll in virtual charters.

While the size of the waitlist is clearly inflated, it does appear to have increased over time, even as the number of charter schools has doubled to 200 since the state cap was lifted. Self-reported data from the 2019 and 2018 annual reports stated that 65,000 and 55,000 students, respectively, were on waitlists for charter school admission. By all indications, however, both of these reports suffered from the same overcount problem.

Source: 2020 Annual Charter Schools Report to the General Assembly

Despite waitlist inaccuracies, overall charter enrollment is up

During the pandemic, more families in North Carolina turned to charter schools, according to OCS data.

Approximately 8.4% of the state’s 1.5 million public school students attend charter schools.

Enrollment in charters grew 14.5%, from 110,000 students in 2019 to 126,000 students as of Oct. 1, 2020.

Charter school enrollment growth in North Carolina is fueled in large part by an increase in Latinx students, who now account for 12.1% of charter school enrollment. A decade ago, Latinx students composed only 5.7%, according to state data.

Enrollment of white students in charter schools declined from 62.4% to 51.1% over 10 years.

Meanwhile, enrollment of Black students has remained steady. They account for 26.4% of charter school enrollment, a slight increase over the 25.8% in 2010.

The enrollment increases for Blacks and Latinx students coincide with North Carolina Advancing Charter Collaboration and Excellence for Student Success (NC ACCESS) grants designed to help charter schools increase their number of educationally disadvantaged students. 

So far, 42 schools across 21 counties have received shares of a $36 million federal Public Charter Schools Program grant awarded the state by the U.S. Department of Education.

More schools have also enacted weighted lotteries that give enrollment preferences to students of color.

Between 2013 and 2018 there were only six charter school with weighted lotteries. This year, there were 42.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.