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Charter School “Waitlist” Numbers Call for Skepticism

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Gary Miron, (269) 599-7965,

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BOULDER, CO (May 5, 2014) – Later today, as part of National Charter Schools Week, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) will release its much-publicized annual estimate of the number of students on charter school waitlists. The number will likely be well in excess of a million students. But, according to a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, the number will also very likely be erroneous.

While there are undoubtedly many students who wish to enroll in popular charter schools and are unable, the overall waitlist numbers are almost certainly much lower than the NAPCS estimates. The Policy Memo published today by the National Education Policy Center outlines nine reasons why policy makers, reporters and others should be skeptical of the NAPCS waitlist numbers.

As explained by co-author and NEPC director Kevin Welner, “The NAPCS estimates are apparently based on a survey of charter schools, but the estimates are offered on a ‘trust us’ basis. To the best of our knowledge the organization simply announces their interpretations of the results, never providing any of the key information needed to verify or understand their bottom line number.”

Red flags abound when considering the NAPCS survey and the reported findings:  it is impossible to know the survey response rate, whether there is any skew or bias to the data, what the exact questions asked were, the methods of data collection, or even the basics about the analysis of the data or how the estimated number or students on waitlists was derived.

Non-transparent methods and non-verifiable results account for just two of nine reasons for skepticism offered by Welner and his co-author, Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University. Among the others are: unreliable waitlist record-keeping, counting as “waiting” applicants who apply to enter into grade levels for which charters provide no entry, imbalanced oversubscription (a small number of very popular charters disproportionately accounting for the waitlists), and – since traditional public schools are not generally allowed to turn away students – the lack of a meaningful comparison for the waitlist data.

Another complication, which NAPCS has acknowledged, is that their headline “waitlist” number needs to be trimmed considerably because “families often apply to multiple charter schools hoping to increase their odds.” Last year, the NAPCS suggested that the number might be reduced by 43.5% because of these multiple applications, but it is unclear how this reduction factor was derived.

The NAPCS announces its estimates as part of an annual advocacy effort to encourage elected officials to remove “barriers that exist to ensure that every child has the option to attend a high-quality public charter school,” according to Nina Rees, NAPCS president and CEO.  Rees is the former chief education analyst for The Heritage Foundation and a former official in the White House under President George W. Bush.

However, as Welner and Miron conclude, the policy implications are murky. “Oversubscription at a given charter school is a sensible indicator of that school’s popularity in relation to its size. If trustworthy and reliable waitlist data were available nationally, aggregation of those data could provide a rough indicator of overall popularity of charter schools in relation to the size of the sector, although such aggregation could lose important information about how many popular schools are driving the total number. There’s an interesting debate to be had about the policy import of such aggregated numbers, but we’re not at that point: we simply do not have trustworthy, reliable waitlist data. Until we do policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’s claims and wait for verifiable data and sound transparent analysis.”


The NEPC policy memo, Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to be Skeptical about Charter Waitlist Numbers, can be found on the NEPC website at

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit