States Should Remove Charter Caps, Report Says

Published April 1, 2006

A January report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) urges state leaders to focus on stronger oversight and application processes to improve charter schools, instead of imposing arbitrary limits on their size and number.

Calling such limitations a “blunt instrument,” the report contends they restrict the growth of quality options while failing to prevent the establishment of poor-quality schools. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia impose limits on charter school expansion. In 10 states parental demand has exceeded or is about to exceed the legislative caps that prevent the opening of new schools or expansion of existing schools, according to the report.

“Charter caps work against the most disadvantaged children,” NAPCS President Nelson Smith said in a news release accompanying the report. “Charter schools open doors for low-income families. There are schools that have achieved educational wonders with traditionally underserved student populations. This type of success should be replicated, not blocked.”

Removing Caps

In the 1990s, when charter schools were first introduced, lawmakers enacted limits to slow expansion. Now that charter schools have proven themselves a valuable part of the education landscape, the report said, those limits have become obsolete and a barrier in the family decision-making process.

That’s why Colorado state Rep. Keith King (R-Colorado Springs) sponsored a 2004 bill, which later became law, to remove district-imposed charter school growth moratoria.

“The reason I voted to remove the cap in Colorado’s charter school law is that I believe competition raises the level of competency in all public schools,” King said. “The greater the competition and variety of educational options in public schools, the more engaged parents are in the education of their children. They can choose what is best for their students.”

The report, titled “Stunting Growth: The Impact of State-Imposed Caps on Charter Schools,” by NAPCS Senior Policy Analyst Todd Ziebarth, found more than a third of charter schools nationwide have waiting lists. To accommodate those unmet needs, states would have to open more than 700 new charter schools across the country.

While many state legislatures have lifted caps on enrollment, significant restrictions remain in 25 states. The report identifies five types of legal constraints on charter schools.

Imposing Restrictions

According to the report, those restrictions are:

  • The number of charter schools in a state: In 16 states, the law restricts the number of charter schools that may be opened throughout the state or in a certain geographic area within the state. In Alaska, for example, only 60 charter schools may open. Illinois limits the total number of schools to 60, of which 45 must be in Chicago and its suburbs.
  • The number of new schools opened annually: Seven states set a limit on the number of schools that may open in a year. In New Mexico, only 15 new schools and five conversion schools–former traditional public schools that want to operate under a charter–may open. New Mexico also imposes a restriction on the number of schools that may open in a five-year period.
  • Limitations on authorizers: Eleven states place restrictions on the number of charters that may be approved by a particular authorizer. In Indiana, for example, the mayor of Indianapolis may charter up to five schools a year.
  • Restrictions on student numbers: Laws in four states restrict the number or percentage of students who may attend charter schools. In Rhode Island, charter schools may serve no more than 4 percent of the school-age population. In Connecticut, schools chartered by the state board of education may enroll no more than 250 to 300 students in a single district, or up to 25 percent of a district’s student population, whichever is less.
  • Other limitations: Five states impose other restrictions. Missouri law, for example, allows only Kansas City and St. Louis to have charter schools. Charter schools in Tennessee may serve only certain kinds of students: those who previously attended poorly performing public schools.

Meeting Caps

In 10 states, such restrictions are severely limiting charter schools’ expansion, the report notes. Of these, eight states–Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island–have met their caps; the other two, Illinois and New York, are likely to do so later this year.

Ziebarth argues such limitations prevent families from accessing options and reformers from replicating proven school models. Instead of relying on these limitations, he recommends establishing rigorous application processes, strong oversight mechanisms, and funding and renewal processes that are transparent to the public.

“Everyone agrees that charter growth must be connected to quality,” Smith said in the news release. “But legislated caps are not the answer and they do nothing to improve educational results. In fact, caps prevent successful schools from expanding and replicating. Legislatures must remember that the goal is to create more high-performing schools, not protect those that chronically fail.”

Eliminating Restrictions

Legislatures should eliminate or sunset caps, Ziebarth writes. In the 10 states where reformers are working to establish charter school laws, the legislatures should avoid the mistake of establishing such caps in the first place.

The report also recommends amending federal law and regulations. The federal Department of Education should give states without artificial restrictions a higher priority in the competition for grants in the department’s Public Charter Schools Program, the report said. The agency could also withhold No Child Left Behind administrative funds from states that provide few alternatives to students in poorly performing schools while restricting the expansion of charter schools.

The American Federation of Teachers did not return calls seeking comment.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado.

For more information …

“Stunting Growth: The Impact of State-Imposed Caps on Charter Schools,” by Todd Ziebarth, senior policy analyst, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is available online at