AUSTIN, Texas — As lawmakers debate expanding Texas charter schools to accommodate students wanting to leave unsatisfactory traditional classrooms, new details show charter school waitlist numbers can fluctuate during the year due in large part to varied reporting standards and duplications.
A major push to expand charter schools that's working its way through the state Legislature has prompted advocates to repeatedly point to a Texas Charter Schools Association survey conducted between last August and September showing nearly 102,000 students statewide were on waitlists for charter schools that didn't have the space for them.
An updated survey conducted by The Associated Press late last month found about 8,000 fewer names, owing in part to some lists that are wiped clean and begun again in January — meaning they have only been building for four months this year.
Charter school operators say their waitlists continue to grow and could eventually exceed last summer's totals.
Meanwhile, the high-profile proposal to expand charters would do little to meet short-term demand. As currently written, the expansion would only allow 10 new charters next school year — and the state already is issuing an average of nine new charters annually.
The charter schools association survey last summer showed at least 101,851 Texas students were on charter school waitlists. According to the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, some 610,000 students are on waiting lists for charter schools in the 42 states that allow them — meaning Texas alone would account for more than 15 percent based on last summer's survey.
The AP last month polled eight of the top 10 charter operators participating in last summer's Texas survey, whose waitlists accounted for 86,771 students — or 85 percent of the total. They reported current waitlists of 78,836 students, or nearly 8,000 less.
Much of the difference stems from the fact that the charter operator with the state's largest enrollment and waitlist, Harmony Public Schools, begins new waitlists annually and adds students until the start of the following academic year.
Also, officials with the survey's fifth-largest waitlist as of last summer — YES Prep Public Schools — said they have changed how they calculate waitlist numbers in hopes of improved accuracy. YES Prep saw its waitlist numbers fall by nearly half to around 3,800 currently.
In addition, neither the charter school association nor the AP controlled for families who have applied to more than one charter school operator and are therefore counted multiple times. Determining the exact number of duplications is impossible because federal privacy laws prohibit schools from divulging who is on their waitlists.
But parents who have been denied admission to charter schools run by one operator say they routinely apply elsewhere.
Rosala Martinez says her sixth-grader son Ramiro Mata has unsuccessfully applied at charters run by YES Prep, as well as fellow operator KIPP Houston. Martinez lives a few blocks from KIPP's Explore Academy in the southeastern part of the city and passes it every morning — but can't send her son there because of limited space.
"Every day he asks me, 'When are we going to be able to go in there?,'" said Martinez, 49. "And I have to tell him, 'one day soon, I hope.'"
David Dunn, the Texas Charter School Association's executive director, said he doesn't believe the number of duplicates in the association's survey is large.
Current Texas law caps the maximum number of state-issued charters, which can be used to run multiple campuses, at 215. A proposal approved by the Texas Senate but not yet debated in the House slowly eases the cap, allowing 10 new charters for the 2014-2015 school year, 15 for the next three academic years, and then 20 the following year.
"That's not going to keep up with demand," Dunn said.
Texas has so far issued 209 charters, which currently support 506 schools educating more than 154,200 children — about 3 percent of 5 million-plus public school students statewide.
Authorities have awarded 305 charters since 1996, but canceled 96 because schools had their licenses revoked, converted to another type of school, went out of business or merged. Attrition has made it possible to authorize about nine new charters per year since 2000, usually without exceeding the cap — though Texas did reach it in 2008 and issued no new charters as a result in 2009.
Now when the cap is neared, officials will sometimes ask operators to consolidate multiple charters to free up space. Consolidation likely will increase in coming years because federal grants previously tied to the number of charters held by an operator now depend on how many schools they run, said Yasmin Bhatia, CEO of Uplift Education, which operates 26 schools across North Texas.
The state's largest consolidation so far saw one operator with 14 original charters consolidate into one, freeing up the other 13, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
All existing charter holders, meanwhile, already can apply to expand their operations without new charters. But Bhatia said current charter schools are deliberately growing slowly to maintain quality.
"With our discipline around our growth, we cannot serve all of the students on our waitlist," she said. "We need other high-quality operators to come, and then those others raise the profile of the charter school movement as a whole."