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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Spaces Still Available at Tier 1 Charter Schools

Six high-performing charter schools still have spaces available, with two weeks to go before schools starts.  Some of the reasons these schools say they have spaces available:

  • It’s very common for last minute enrollments
  • New parents are unfamiliar with the enrollment process
  • Some schools have more spaces to fill because it offers more available seats
  • Parents still deciding where the student will go to school

Find available spaces for all DC charters schools by using PCSB’s Available Charter School Seats and Waitlist feature available on our website

Posted by: PCSB at 2:15 p.m.
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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Charter School Wait Lists Show Continued Need for High-Quality Schools

We have once again asked schools to share with us information about waitlists and available seats. We collect this information primarily so that we can share with parents which schools still have available spaces, and how high the odds are to clear the waitlist at schools that are full.

We are still validating this data, and expect to post detailed grade-by-grade waitlist and availability information for the 2013-2014 school year, for all schools, on Monday, May 6.

But what we can report now, is that our early data show that around 22,000 names are currently on the wait lists to get into charter schools of their choice. This is nearly 50% higher than the 15,000 names we reported last year. This is a depressingly high number that testifies to the continued strong demand for quality schools among DC families and the ongoing shortage of enough quality seats to meet parent demand.  More than half of all names on waitlists are at schools rated as “Tier 1” under our Performance Management Framework.

It also appears that there are approximately 1,000 slots still available at schools. Again, we will share specific information about where these slots are available on Monday.

Demand is high in nearly every ward.  Nearly every ward has more than 1,000 students on waitlists, with the exception of Ward 3 which has no charter schools. We are seeing the greatest demand for seats in the early grades – roughly 14,000 in PK3 through 1st grade, but parents are looking to enroll the children in a charter school at every grade level.

We know that parents are on wait lists at multiple schools, so our waitlist count undoubtedly includes duplicate names. This year we aren’t able to “dedupe” the names.  But next year, as we work to build a common lottery, we expect we will be able to report not only on the total number of names, but also how many individual students this represents.

The real tragedy behind these numbers is that many of our best schools want to grow to serve more children, but they are constrained by facilities.  Meanwhile, we count 25 empty school buildings that are either vacant or soon to be vacant. Quality charter schools need access to these buildings to serve the thousands of families currently on waitlists.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Mid-Year Transfers: Funding Myths Busted

It’s budget season in DC and the Washington Post recently ran this story about how DC schools are funded.

The piece described how charters are paid based on actual enrollment, while DCPS is paid based on estimates:

Also, charter schools are paid according to their actual audited enrollment. But traditional schools are funded based on projected enrollments, which tend to be overly optimistic. FOCUS estimates that the school system received $142 million between 2009 and 2013 for students it did not actually enroll.

For years, school system officials have maintained that the cushion helps them deal with an influx of students, many from charter schools, who come after enrollment counts are finalized in October. Unlike charter schools, traditional schools are legally obligated to serve all students — just one of many ways in which the two sectors operate under different rules.

When I first started at PCSB I was told that "thousands" of students flowed into DCPS each year after the enrollment count, and hence the over estimation was somehow justified as paying for students who arrive mid-year.  

While it’s true that students do transition between schools mid-year, these numbers have been greatly overblown.  But while thousands of students enter DCPS mid-year (3,697 to be exact), thousands leave mid-year as well (3,359 students).  According to this mobility study by the Office of the State Superintendent (OSSE), the net gain in DCPS mid-year for the most recent school year was just 338 students.  We could fully reimburse DCPS for these mid-year students for about $3M per year, but the overestimation adds up to ten times this amount!

The facts are clear: the supposed influx of thousands of students is in reality a few hundred, and the funding cushion is at least ten times larger than it needs to be to accommodate for those students that switch schools.

What we need, and need urgently, is to fundamentally revise the payment process.  Both charters and DCPS should be paid based on actual numbers.  And rather than rely on a single count of students in October to set the payment, there should be multiple counts throughout the year to ensure that schools who add students are properly compensated.  This is common sense reform that ensures equality and proper incentives.

As an aside, the OSSE mobility study is worth looking at closely because it bursts so many myths. For example, of the 3,697 who entered DCPS mid-year, just 561 transferred from a charter school.  Indeed most students who leave charter schools mid-year do so because they are moving out of state.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Hunt for a Charter School

If you think March Madness is just college basketball, think again.  Parents in Washington, DC participate in “March Madness” of their own as they hunt for that wonderful school – whether it’s a charter school or a traditional DC public school.  The hunt began for some at the DC Public Charter School Expo in January where they took a look at nearly 60 charter schools showing their wares.  This year 85 charter schools came together to make the process easier for parents with the “Your Charters Your Choice” campaign where parents had three common dates to remember:  the March 15 deadline to apply to charter schools; the March 22 lottery date for those charter schools that had more applicants than spaces; and April 12: the deadline to accept a charter school lottery space if they were lucky enough to snag one.  Most of all, parents could find applications to all the charter schools in one location – on the “Your Charters Your Choice” website.

Each charter school conducts its own lottery; however, every school follows the same fundamental rules.  Each school put all interested students who applied by March 15 into a pool, mixed up the names, and drew the lucky winders. No applicants, short of siblings of students currently attending the school, got priority.  After the lucky “winners” were chosen, the remaining names were placed on wait-lists.

Since January, a parent has been sharing her quest to find that perfect school that provides a pre-kindergarten program for her three- and- a- half- year-old son.  After the Expo she had narrowed her list to about 10 schools.  She visited some Open Houses and applied to her list of favorite schools and waited for decision day.  She appreciated having one common application date for charter schools, but wished the charter schools had one application for all schools, and one lottery for all charter schools -- where you rank your top six choices and you would only get into one school.   She also said it would be great if the whole application process were on one computerized system.  PCSB is also in favor of making the process of exercising choice easier for families and is researching the possibility of having a single system and common application for all DC public charter schools and perhaps even all DC public schools.

So how did this parent fare with her search?  She got a space at one charter school and one DCPS school via the out of boundary application process.  Unfortunately, neither school was her first choice.   She’s also wait-listed at eight charter schools.   Now comes the hard part – she must decide by April 12 whether to accept the space at the charter school.  She would love to get a spot at one of the schools she is wait-listed at but doesn’t know if she should hold out for this spot, as she may not get the call until late summer, or even after the school year has started. So, she feels compelled to accept one of the two offers. Once she accepts a spot at either school, she will be asked to commit to that school—and only that school. It’s an agonizing choice.  And, to think, she has to do this over again in a couple of years for her daughter.

While PCSB does not know how many students applied to charter schools this year, schools say they saw an increase in applications.  By the end of April, PCSB will publish the waiting lists at charter schools.

Posted by: PCSB at 4:54 pm
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Saturday, February 16, 2013

No Screening in DC

Friday Reuters published an article raising some disturbing issues concerning the way some charter schools around the nation create barriers to certain families.  The Reuters article describes how certain charter schools require for applicants such things as lengthy essays, birth certificates, mandatory interviews, documentation of disabilities, or letters of reference.

Such requirements create subtle and not-so-subtle barriers to families.  They violate the core principle that charter schools are public schools, open to all students.  

These types of barriers are not permitted in DC.

PCSB for the past several years has reviewed the application forms of all DC charter schools.  We reject any application forms that request more than such basic information as name, address, age, grade level, and the presence of a sibling in a school.  Schools may not ask for information on special education status, disciplinary history, or family income.  They may not create barriers to students applying to their schools.

PCSB goes beyond this.  We call schools posing as parents with special needs students who wish to apply to the school.  We document whether the school puts up barriers or counsels students to apply elsewhere, and then work with the school to correct their practices.  (For the record, we find very few violations.)

Once a student has applied, the school holds a lottery if they have more applicants for a grade than they have spaces.   If a student wins the lottery and is admitted, the school may then ask for more extensive information to enable them to properly serve the admitted student.  This includes income (for free lunch qualification), and special education status (so that the school can immediately begin delivering appropriate special education services.)

The Reuters article raises troubling issues that policy makers and legislators need to look into urgently.  It's important to note that the practices they document are already prohibited in DC.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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Monday, February 11, 2013

DCPS Enrollment: The Sky is NOT Falling

Today’s Washington Post story on the steady growth of DC charter school enrollment talks about charter school market share, and whether or when charters might become more than 50 percent of the DC public school students.

The piece by reporter Emma Brown also raises important questions about education policy in the city, like: Should there be a limit on charter school growth or a pause on this growth? Should there be more joint planning around what schools open where? I’d like to share my thoughts on these issues.  Today I will focus on the issue of charter growth.  Tomorrow I will address joint planning.

PCSB has heard from many the concern that charter school growth is weakening traditional schools.  Many have expressed the fear that DCPS could shrink to an attenuated system without enough scale to maintain a viable network of neighborhood schools. 

We think the opposite is the case, and that a sky-is-falling Chicken-Little outlook is actually a result of misreading the data. 

Here are the facts:  Since 2009, enrollment in DCPS has stabilized. DCPS is not shrinking.  It is slowly growing. 

Why is enrollment in DCPS increasing? 

Two reform-oriented chancellors, an education shift to mayoral control, and a huge investment in modernizing facilities have certainly played a role.  But all of this has occurred in an environment of increased competition from charter schools.  As was intended when they were created, the competition from charter schools is spurring needed improvements in traditional schools.  As a result DCPS is stronger, better led, and higher quality than it has been in decades.

But what about school closures?  Isn’t that prima facie evidence that DCPS continues to shrink?   No it is not.  The recent decision to close 15 DCPS schools is, in many respects, a delayed response to the enrollment declines of a decade ago.

Add strong charter growth to modest DCPS growth and we achieve something remarkable: overall public school enrollment has grown for four straight years.  More students are enrolled in public schools, DC and charter, than we have seen in nearly twenty years.  

And this growth does not need to stop.  In 1966, 146,644 students went to DC public schools.  Today total enrollment is 80,230.  If DCPS and charters keep growing high-quality schools, we can draw families back to the city and keep the many young people who will soon have children.

It’s time to stop focusing on market share and to start focusing on more important questions:  Don't we need more high-quality schools for our children?  Don't good public schools – district and charter -- contribute to the growth of our city?

As long as the answers to these questions are “yes”, we see no reason to stop approving new charters of operators who offer that promise to the city.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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