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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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