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The Quiet Charter School Cap

• Cara Candal

This week, thousands of charter school teachers, leaders, and advocates will gather for the National Association of Public Charter Schools’ Annual Conference. If it’s like most years, attendees will leave with new relationshipsnew ideas and a renewed sense of commitment to students and families. 

But as we engage in productive dialogue about practice and policy, it may be difficult to ignore the negative press surrounding charter schools as of late. We must remember we are working for not just the close to 1,000,000 students who remain on charter school waitlists nationwide, but for all children and families who crave educational options. In 22 states (including West Virginia, the most recent state to add charter schools) parents can’t access the schools that they want for their children because of caps to growth.  Not only do these caps – and the one-sided coverage from the media – deny access, they can also contribute to negative perceptions of charter schools, generally.  

Massachusetts, a state that voted down a lift of its statewide charter school cap in 2016, provides an example. When the Massachusetts legislature enabled charter schools in 1993, charter advocates and detractors settled on a statewide cap of 25 schools. In short order, it became clear that 25 charter schools wouldn’t be enough. To meet demand, the legislature has raised the statewide cap three times.  

The second statewide cap-lift came with a condition: a cap on the amount of money that districts can send to charters. In Massachusetts, when a student leaves a district for a charter, the state and local money that the district would have spent on that pupil follows the child to the charter of his or her choice (and districts are, in most years, reimbursed the tuition they’ve paid to the charter). State law caps the amount of tuition that districts can spend to 9 percent of net school spending. As of 2010, that spending cap increases to 18 percent in underperforming districts, or districts that achieve in the lowest 10 percent on statewide standardized tests 

This is the cap that matters. Demand for charter schools is highest in underperforming districts, and parents and students see the state’s very highperforming charter schools as desirable alternatives. Even with an 18 percent spending cap, there are almost 9,000 students on charter school waitlists in Boston alone. 

These caps are onerous, but the state is also limiting the charter schools that parents want in another way. The 2010 law requires that when a district becomes eligible for an increase of the charter cap, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education must award any new charter school seats to “proven providers.” This clause is well intentioned—legislators wanted to ensure that students who needed them most would have access to high-quality school options—but it’s also had the unintended consequences of limiting innovation and shifting perceptions of charter schools. The proven provider clause on its own isn’t bad. Rather, in the context of a stringent cap on charter schools, the proven provider clause forces the state to favor replication over innovation.  

Since 2010, most providers that have established new charters in underperforming districts have been replications of existing models and programs, which means they are less able to offer something new to parents or to customize whole-school approaches to emerging student and community needs. This lack of innovation has shut out young education entrepreneurs inside of the state. It has also discouraged high-quality operators in other places from entering Massachusetts. Perhaps more insidious, the statute has imposed a “sameness” on the sector that charter parents and the wider community have noticed. According to one parent “as charter schools became a movement, they failed to realize that kids have diverse needs and desires. 

In a time when charter schools are up against the wall politically, no charter sector—especially one of the highest performing in the country—can afford to lose the battle of perception. From the beginning, charter schools have been about access, innovation, autonomy, and accountability. When access exists, when charters have the autonomy to innovate, and when authorizers close charters that fail, outcomes follow. 

If policymakers care about parents, they need to put these principles first. When parents have the charters they demand, few politicians will feel emboldened to limit or take those schools away. 

About the author

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.