This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said Friday that there is no way of knowing whether the claim is accurate that 40,000 students in Philadelphia now are on charter school waiting lists.
Is the number larger? is it smaller? Is it close? What is the relationship between the number of names on lists and the actual number of students waiting to get into charters?
Can’t say, according to Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
As the School District wraps up its first set of hearings on applications for 40 new charter schools in the city, Fayfich explained in an interview the origin of the figure that is often cited by prominent charter proponents, including PennCAN and the Philadelphia School Partnership.
He acknowledged that the estimate is based on figures from 2010-11 and does not account for duplication of students who are on more than one waiting list, or for students who may already be in a school that they want to attend.
"Our numbers are from the best available data at the time," Fayfich said. "It’s the best number there is, and we’ve always said, if there is one student on a waiting list, that’s one too many."
A Philadelphia School Partnership spokesperson said that Fayfich was the source of the 40,000 figure.
But District spokesman Fernando Gallard, who has been questioning the number, said that he finds it "disappointing" that the 40,000 figure is being cited repeatedly if it can’t be verified.
"This number has been used many times for the last few months to indicate the urgency of increasing the number of charter schools," he said. "This really underlines the need for transparency when we have these conversations about numbers because it’s important we deal with the right numbers and the real numbers."
In 2007, the District put a moratorium on approving new charters, citing financial constraints. But it was required to reopen the application pipeline by state legislation that funneled money to the District from a new city cigarette tax. Throughout this time, charter proponents have argued that there is pent-up demand for more charters. Coincidentally, the 40 charter applications submitted to the District this fall, if all approved, would add just over 40,000 seats.
The 40,000 number for waiting lists comes from a study that PCPCS did in February 2013, Fayfich said, when it totaled up the self-reported figures from charter school annual reports that had been submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The figures were for 2010-11, Fayfich said, the latest available at the time. They showed that the total enrollment in charters across the state was 99,546 and that there were 44,041 names on waiting lists. Only 79 charters at that time reported figures, he said.
In Philadelphia, he said, the total enrollment in charters that year was 45,575 and the waiting list figures reported totaled just under 35,000 names — 34,951. How many different students those numbers represented was not investigated. There is no limit to the number of waiting lists any one student can be on.
Today, there are some 67,000 Philadelphia students in 86 charters, including 7,000 in cyber schools. Has that growth meant that the waiting list has been whittled down? Or that the demand is growing?
"We can’t extrapolate," Fayfich said.
PCPCS did a similar analysis for 2009-10, and found that the waiting list figure had dropped slightly from that year to the next. "That could have been the beginning of more students moving into charter schools," Fayfich said. "The numbers in charters have increased since then, and to what extent that has an impact on the waiting list, we don’t know."
The waiting list figures are based on how many students entered the school’s lottery. But many families enter several schools’ lotteries, as well as applying to selective admission District schools, and do get into a school of choice.
"We didn’t try to look for redundancies," Fayfich said. That would involve looking through all the individual applications — an impossible task, he said.
Fayfich said his group has not sought to update the numbers because compiling them from the annual reports took two months.
Plus, starting in 2012-13, PDE’s annual report format changed significantly, and the current format includes no information about waiting lists. The earlier reports are no longer on the state site.
Some states make an effort to quantify charter demand. Illinois creates a biennial report, for instance. Pennsylvania doesn’t do this. A 2013 investigation by WBEZ in Chicago found similar issues in Illinois, concluding that a report of 19,000 students on charter waiting lists in that city was overstated.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) claimed in May that charter school waiting lists across the country topped a million names.
Researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) in Colorado subsequently came out with a report saying that there are nine reasons to be skeptical of charter waiting list numbers.
One is the duplication factor. But other issues include imprecise record-keeping, inability to verify the numbers, and the fact that some students may apply for non-existent grades.
In addition, many charters have empty seats; waitlist numbers can be driven by a few very popular schools. For instance, MaST in the Far Northeast claims a waiting list of more than 5,000, String Theory reports 3,000 names, and KIPP Philadelphia says it has 1,600 students seeking admission.
And if charter schools lose students during the school year, they often do not take in new ones to take their place — so-called "backfilling" — unlike District schools that are required to take all comers at all times. That means the charters can have empty seats while still maintaining their waiting list number. Such student "churn" can destabilize a school, and many charters consciously avoid it. Also, potential replacement students may be reluctant to move mid-year.
"We simply do not have trustworthy, reliable waitlist data," the NEPC report concludes. "Until we do, policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’s claims and wait for verifiable data."