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Charter school wait list: Take an accurate count

The state’s 80-odd charter schools and their supporters point proudly to a 53,000-student waiting list as proof for the need to raise the state cap on these K-12 classrooms that operate outside the control of local school districts. It’s true that parents are queuing up to get their children a seat in charter schools known for impressive MCAS scores, flexible teacher hiring practices, and a longer school day. But the list is inflated by duplicate entries that arise when families join the lotteries for more than one charter school.

Officials of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledge that charter schools provide the raw data, including student names and addresses, needed to create an accurate count. But state officials have failed to sort the information. Even with recent periods of erratic staffing in the department's charter school office, the creation of the list should be a relatively simple and inexpensive computerization task. It should be a priority, too. The failure to provide accurate information just plays into the hands of officials in poorly performing school districts who resent competing with charter schools for resources.

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Charter schools were created primarily to give low-income students in low-performing school districts some real choice. And that choice has dwindled as more than half of the 29 school districts that rank in the bottom 10 percent on the state’s MCAS exam are either at the cap or have room for only one more charter school.

State lawmakers need to wrestle with the cap issue as demand for new charter seats continues. An accurate assessment of the size of that demand will be the first step in reaching a sound decision.

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