Texas Charter School Wait List Doubles in One Year

Published December 24, 2009

Large growth of Texas charter school student waiting lists is spurring renewed efforts to modify the law that limits the number of public schools of choice in the state.

A December 2009 report by Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Brooke Terry identified more than 40,000 students statewide who are waiting to enroll in the state’s 213 open-enrollment charter schools. Even though statewide capacity for these schools grew by 12,000 between 2008-09 and 2009-10, the number of students on waiting lists still doubled.

“The increase in enrollment and waiting list numbers demonstrate that many parents are choosing other [public school] options,” Terry said.

Students in open-enrollment charter schools, which are authorized by the State Board of Education, constitute roughly 80 percent of the Texas charter school population. A smaller number of charters are authorized by local school districts or by universities. State law caps the number of open-enrollment charters at 215 statewide. Currently, there are 213 such charters with more than 400 campuses.

Raising the Cap

In 2009, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) introduced SB 1830 to raise the cap by 12 schools per year. The legislation passed the Senate but was defeated in the House on a point of order technicality last May. Patrick plans to reintroduce the legislation in 2011, during the next Texas legislative session. He believes the measure will help meet increased demand while addressing concerns about quality.

“Right now we need to allow for a steady growth of charter schools,” said Patrick. “By creating a moving cap, we can reduce that wait time for students and make sure we are approving schools to succeed.”

Texas charter schools serve substantially larger shares of poor and minority students than the state’s public school system at large. A greater percentage of the state’s open-enrollment charters met federal No Child Left Behind standards than their non-charter counterparts in 2008.

Nevertheless, most traditional measurements of academic status have not indicated an advantage for charter schools. A new system of measuring school performance may change that result, however.

“The new accountability standards passed in HB 3 last session will help all public schools because it will measure each student’s growth, focusing on the individual rather than the group,” Patrick explained.

Remedies Available

Even without changes to the cap, the state board of education has room to approve two new open-enrollment charters that could be operating by autumn 2010. The application process is underway.

“We always have more applicants than spots available,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, communications director for the Texas Education Agency.

In addition, Ratcliffe noted, existing charter operators can seek contract amendments from the commissioner of education to lift their existing enrollment caps. School quality is an important consideration in determining whether Commissioner Robert Scott will sanction such requests.

“He has said that he will give a waiver to a high-performing charter that meets certain criteria,” Ratcliffe said. “A school that’s struggling academically is unlikely to get that enrollment amendment approved.”

Other Options

Patrick agrees with the emphasis on quality but says existing charters seeking to grow currently are forced to wait too long.

“We need to tighten the financial accountability on charter schools and provide support,” he said. “On the other hand, we need to loosen the regulations on highly successful charter schools and allow them to expand and open new campuses without going through the long approval process.”

Approximately 60 percent of Texas charter school students come from one of the major metropolitan areas of Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, or San Antonio. A wide range of existing charter programs operate throughout the state—from the dropout recovery focus of the Texas CAN Academies to the math, science, and computer emphasis at Harmony Schools.

“Parents recognize the one-size-fits-all education model in their neighborhood school is not able to meet their child’s individual needs,” said Terry. “Charter schools provide parents other options within the public school system.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.