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Three States Lifting Charter Caps?

Charter caps are one of the more restrictive aspects of any charter law. They can limit the number of schools built in a state and hinder geographic accessibility for needy students, or they can limit enrollment totals and thereby deny needy students access to charter schools even if they’re next door. Luckily, few states employ them in such a way as to stifle constructive charter school growth, but even if there are loopholes, capping charter growth at all is often seen as a weak appeasement measure for opponents of school choice, and in the end caps don’t make much sense anyway.

For instance, Texas state law presently caps the charters authorized by the state agency (TEA) at 215, but TEA-approved governing boards can manage multiple schools under a single charter. This means that the cap of 215 really only applies to the number of entities that can hold one of those charters, making the cap rather arbitrary. It is the discretionary nature of this cap that has caused the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA) to protest it altogether, and there is a bill being proposed now that would expand that cap to 305 into 2019. In the eyes of anti-Choicers, a larger cap is better than none at all (which was the original bill’s intent), so this legislation has likely been approved behind closed doors already and should not encounter too much trouble going forward.

In Texas, there is no cap on State-authorized charters partnered with higher-ed (Universities and community colleges) or on District-authorized charters, making the cap even less stringent. On the other end of the spectrum, we also have states like Massachusetts, with so many cap laws in place that potential governing boards wonder where the line is actually drawn.


Massachusetts law contains the following caps on charter school growth:

  1. 120, with 72 reserved for commonwealth charter schools and 48 reserved for Horace Mann charter schools.
  2. Not less than two of the new charters approved by the state board of education in any year shall be granted for charter schools located in districts where overall student performance on the statewide assessment system is in the lowest 10 percent statewide in the two years preceding the charter application.
  3. In any fiscal year, no school district’s total charter school tuition payment to commonwealth charter schools shall exceed nine percent of said district’s net school spending. However, in the districts performing in the lowest 10 percent statewide, this percentage will increase from nine percent to 18 percent between Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2017, with any new charters above the previous cap of nine percent reserved for the replication of high performing schools these districts. The law provides that the schools authorized above the previous cap of nine percent don’t count toward the cap of 72 commonwealth charter schools.
  4. The state board of education shall not approve a new commonwealth charter school in any community with a population of less than 30,000 unless it is a regional charter school. In any year, the state board of education shall approve only one regional charter school application of any commonwealth charter school located in a school district where overall student performance on the statewide assessment system is in the top 10 percent in the year preceding charter application.

For all the nit-picking in the law, NAPCS gave Massachusetts a 1 out of 4 on its cap rating, while Texas, because it is so flexible, managed to get a 2 out of 4. The loosest caps get a 3, such as California, which lifts its cap by 100 every year, and Washington DC, which has a 10-per-year charter limit, but no total cap. And, of course, states with no cap at all get a 4 out of 4.

Another state that NAPCS rated a 1 out of 4 on its cap law is Maine, a relatively new state to the charter community. Fittingly, something that Texas, Massachusetts and Maine all have in common right now is that they are all considering lifting their respective caps.

Texas has already been discussed as moot, but Massachusetts, with a teacher workforce that is 92.8% unionized, was one of those states that we never really expected to change, despite the high need for charter schools in Boston. In fact, this cap revision language is coming primarily from the longest serving mayor in Boston history, Thomas Menino.

Menino, who is not seeking re-election for the first time since 1984, pointed to the successful turnaround of Gavin Middle School in South Boston by UP Academy as an example of how they “should not have to wait for a school to fail before we give it the tools to succeed.” Of course, naysayers have pointed to student departures there as a sign that UP Academy is padding its testing data by forcing out the worst kids, but it could just as easily be argued  that those kids couldn’t hack it – the UP Academy school year runs through June and the school day is from 7:20am-3:20pm, with early release on Fridays.

Meanwhile, farther up the coast, Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage, is trying to maneuver around the current cap that limits State-authorized charters to 10 until 2022.

Not 10 per year – 10 total.

There are also enrollment caps stating that charter schools cannot enroll more than 5% (for Districts with <500 students) to 10% (in Districts with >500 students) of the resident school district’s students per grade level in each of the first three years that a school is open.

That means in a District of 400 kids (divided by 13 grade levels, making 30.77 per grade), a charter school can only enroll 1.54 students per grade for the first 3 years. That is an admittedly small District, but Maine is a small state. Even a District like Portland, Maine’s largest, with almost 7,000 students, would only allow charter schools about 54 kids per grade on average, meaning the largest K-8 charter school in the state of Maine could have a max enrollment for its first 3 operational years of about 486 students.

These caps are causing a lot of friction in Maine, which just passed its first charter law in 2011. So much friction, in fact, that Gov. LePage has asked the members of the statewide authorizing commission (Maine Charter School Commission) to resign because they only authorized 1 of 5 charters in the most recent application period. The MCSC was rumored to have been threatened by unions and anti-Choice legal representatives, which might have also contributed to the decision, but given that the current cap averages out to 1 charter school per year over the next 10 years, what can Gov. LePage really expect? If anything, the Commission was just sticking to the math.

In all likelihood, Gov. LePage wanted the commission to use up all the available charters early so he could press the legislature for more. This would definitely have strengthened his current bill, which was referred to the Legislature’s Education Committee on May 9. Stephen Bowen, the state’s education commissioner, appears to support a push for more charters, admitting that something was seriously wrong with the chartering process if 4 of 5 were rejected outright.

The recent bill is aimed at fixing the 1-charter-per-year thinking that is choking off education reform in Maine. It is unclear exactly how (or if) the cap will be lifted, but LePage is already seeing tremendous hostility from the usual suspects.

“This is part of the relentless campaign of the governor to drain funds from our schools,” claimed Lois Kilby-Chesley of the Maine Education Association (part of the NEA pyramid) “This is nothing more than a political maneuver which does nothing to help our students succeed.” This is the same opposition LePage faced in January when he sought to cut over $30 million wherever he could, but was criticized by Kilby-Chelsey for not allocating more to public education.

Maine isn’t the only state with such tight cap restrictions. Although Massachusetts districts are also stingy with their students, at least Massachusetts is considering revisions to the cap law. Connecticut, on the other hand, is an absolute mess.


Connecticut law contains the following caps:

  1. 250 students per state board of education-authorized charter or 25 percent of the enrollment of the district in which the charter is located, whichever is less
  2. 300 students per state board of education-authorized K-8 charter or 25 percent of the enrollment of the district in which the charter is located, whichever is less.
  3. State law allows the state board to waive these cap restrictions for charters with a demonstrated record of achievement.
  4. State law only allows public charter schools to open in towns that have one or more schools that have been designated as a commissioner’s network school or in towns that have been designated as a low achieving school district.
  5. State law provides that on and after July 1, 2012, and before July 1, 2017, the state board of education shall not approve more than four applications for the establishment of new state charter schools unless two of the four such applications are for the establishment of two new state charter schools whose mission, purpose and specialized focus is to provide dual language programs or other models focusing on language acquisition for English language learners.

Maine, a tiny state by population, allows charters up to almost 500 students in the best case scenario. Connecticut, which is part of the New York City metropolitan statistical area, doesn’t allow State-authorized charter schools over 300 students unless a waiver is granted. Even more obtuse, Connecticut’s 4-charters-per-year rule only applies if half of those are focused on dual-language/ELL programs, and that exists only until 2017.

The only states to score worse than Connecticut on the most recent NAPCS ranking were Mississippi and New Hampshire, both of which had moratoriums of some sort when the ratings were done. Since then, Mississippi has passed a fairly progressive charter law, but New Hampshire’s moratorium on State-authorization and pre-existing caps on charters and enrollment are so restrictive that the state might as well not have a charter law at all. There is hope, but the state’s history doesn’t breed confidence in our minds.

We’ll close on a positive note and leave you with a list of states with no caps at all (as of 2012-13).

  1. Alaska
  2. Colorado
  3. Delaware* (discretionary app denial)
  4. Florida
  5. Georgia
  6. Hawaii
  7. Idaho
  8. Indiana (some virtual restrictions)
  9. Iowa
  10. Kansas
  11. Louisiana
  12. Maryland
  13. Michigan* (loose cap ends in 2015)
  14. Minnesota
  15. Nevada
  16. New Jersey
  17. North Carolina (lifted cap in 2010)
  18. Oregon (some virtual restrictions)
  19. South Carolina
  20. Tennessee
  21. Virginia
  22. Wyoming

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