Charter school waiting lists: the other side of the story

Apr 4, 2013 by

by Collin Hitt –

WBEZ in Chicago has published one of the more incomplete stories on charter schools I’ve read in a long time.  It asserts:

Charter advocates and even the Chicago Tribune editorial board say 19,000 kids are on charter school waiting lists in the city.

There’s just one problem with that number: it’s not accurate. It significantly overstates demand.

Charter schools in Chicago each maintain their own lotteries and waitlists. Many eager families apply to more than one school, and then suffer the double disappointment of failing to win a lottery to get into either. Thus – WBEZ’s main point – waitlist statistics overstate the demand of the charter school because many children are on more than one waitlist.

The effect of the story is to discredit the school choice movement in Chicago. A full story would have reached the opposite conclusion. WBEZ presents this line as its coup de grace.

Though Andrew Broy from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools has insisted that 19,000 children are on waiting lists for Chicago charter schools, he now says he believes the real number is around 65 percent of that.

Assuming Broy’s guess is correct, that means as many as 6,650 students are on more than one waitlist. How does that undermine the case for charter school demand? Thousands of parents have sought numerous options to flee their current schools. These are determined and desperate people. But limits on charter school supply have denied them any option. To boot, WBEZ reports that there are waitlists at district-run magnet schools as well, suggesting that some parents on charter waitlists have tried and failed to win lotteries into other schools of choice as well. That’s a tragic story that, to me, calls for more charter schools.

WBEZ took particular pleasure in needling the Chicago Tribune, who frequently cites the 19,000 number. There’s a reason, however, that the Trib reports that stat. It’s officially reported by the Illinois State Board of Education. Neither the state board nor WBEZ calculated a different figure that adjusts for double counting. If they did, I’m sure the Trib would report it.

All of this boils down to an obvious point. Waitlists are a crude way to measure charter school demand. Some children land on more than one waitlist. Some families don’t ever apply, discouraged by the long waiting lists they read about. Some families attempt to transfer after enrollment periods and waitlists have closed. Other families haven’t yet found a charter school they like – an inevitable side effect of policymakers limiting the number of charter schools permitted to open.

A complete journalistic account would have found other ways to estimate demand. One such way: commission a survey of families. Guess who did that – the Chicago Tribune, in partnership with the Joyce Foundation.

On the Trib’s behalf, the University of Chicago conducted a scientific phone poll of Chicago adults. Half of the 1,010 respondents were Chicago Public School parents.  It reports:

Many existing charter schools in Chicago have waiting lists because more parents want to enroll their children in public charters schools than these schools can currently accommodate. Would you agree or disagree that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) should make it easier for public charter schools to expand in neighborhoods where public charter schools have waiting lists ? (AFTER RESPONSE, PROBE) Do you…

Strongly agree 46.4

Somewhat agree 17.3

Somewhat disagree 8.0

Strongly disagree 24.0

Neither agree nor disagree 2.4

DON’T KNOW 1.2

REFUSED 0.7

So 63.7 percent of Chicagoans support increasing charter schools to meet demand. Chicago Public Schools enrolls 400,000 students. There are 19,000 students on waitlists and another 40,000 or so enrolled in charter schools. Together that’s 15 percent of total enrollment, yet 63 percent of Chicago residents support increasing supply. So do we really think – as WBEZ suggests – that the 19,000 number overestimates demand?

Relying on polling, of course, has its limits. Here’s something else that WBEZ could have done: looked at charter demand elsewhere. Gary, Indiana is a beleaguered suburb of Chicago. It’s a rough place with its share of academic struggles. Indiana policy is more permissive of charter schools than is Illinois’. In Gary, 31 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, as compared to 11 percent in Chicago. In Detroit, 41 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools. In Milwaukee, 21 percent are in charters and even more students are enrolled in that district’s school voucher program.

Chicago and Milwaukee and Detroit are different. But not so different that charter school demand would be two to four times lower in the Windy City. There is unmet and unmeasured demand for charter schools in Chicago, which brings me to my final point.

Charter schools create their own demand. There were zero students on charter waiting lists when there were zero charter schools in Chicago. As charter schools expand in the city, more families will sign up to attend them. Waitlists tell a compelling story – people want into charter schools. But they don’t tell the whole story, and neither did WBEZ.

Charter school waiting lists: the other side of the story | Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

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