MEDIA WATCH: WBEZ finally blows the whistle on the charter school 'waiting list' fiction

The first time, five or six years ago, I heard Arne Duncan claim in public that there was a supposed "waiting list" for entry into Chicago's burgeoning number of charter schools, I asked him how long the waiting list for Whitney Young High School was. I won't forget the scene. Arne was presiding over an "RFP" media event on behalf of the charter schools of Chicago (at that time, there were about 50 of them) at Urban Prep, with the Urban Prep students arrayed on stage at Englewood High School and Arne surrounded by various charter school and free market supporters, including Cynthia Neeley, then Chicago Treasurer, and a group of out-of-town charter school edupreneurs. I was the only reporter to ask a skeptical question.

"I'll get back to you on that," was Arne Duncan's canned "F___ you" answer when the cameras were rolling.

Over the years, Duncan perfected that particular lie. Regularly, he claimed that there was a large "waiting list" for Chicago charter schools. The fact that the charter schools had something called a "waiting list" went from being a novelty to established fact. The number slowly increased from 9,000 to 19,000 (I personally think it was the symmetry, but nobody ever saw a list and Arne continued to say "I'll get back to you on that" when I went from asking for the Whitney Young "waiting list" to asking for a copy of the charter schools list. But like most marketing tricks, somehow the existence of such a list validated the claim by charter school fans that there was some kind of huge parental demand for charter schools (but now for the city's real public schools). The "waiting list" was not only proof in fiction (see "Waiting for Superman" or "Won't Back Down") but established fact. It has been repeated from Washington, D.C. (Michelle Rhee; Arne Duncan) to points west, and, of course, back in Chicago (Andrew Broy, Phyllis Lockett and others).

But how does such a significant lie begin in Chicago and then go national without any scrutiny? Good question...

When Duncan went to Washington to be U.S. Secretary of Education, he not only brought many of the Chicago Boys (and girls) with him, but most of the carefully scripted Chicago lies. Sure enough, within a few months after January 2009, the "waiting list" became a mainstay of the claims by the U.S. Department of Education that there was a "demand" from parents nationally for charter schools. Not good neighborhood public schools -- charter schools.

The reason for beginning with a question about the city's magnet schools is simple. Every year, the city's specialty public schools (from the "college prep high schools" to the gifted elementary schools and programs) take applications. Parents apply to more than one program. Theoretically, every student who applies, say, to Lane Tech or Whitney Young, and isn't accepted could be on a "waiting list" for a real public school. Based on the ratio of number of applicants to the number of "seats" for them, three north side (north of 39th St., which bisects Chicago) academic high schools — Northside College Prep, Payton, and Whitney Young — would have a "waiting list" bigger than that claimed for all Chicago charter schools. But of course there is no such thing. When my eldest son applied for Whitney Young, Northside, Lane Tech and Payton in 2002 - 2003, he only got into Whitney Young (and attended it, graduating in 2007). Of course, the "waiting list" for the others would have included his name, had the city's real public schools been into a campaign of lies and deceptions such as has accompanied the massive expansion of Chicago charter schools.

The story probably required an era when Chicago's news media were contracting to the point where most "stories" were recycled PR claims, dusted off and with a byline.

It's been a lie all along for several reasons, any one of them easily proved, but the lie just grew bigger when the national version of the Chicago Plan was pushed by the Chicago Boys in Washington under Race To The Top. That issue of "demand" (after all, market forces and all that stuff) was central. No reporter in D.C., though, apparently ever asked Arne the same question: Can you show me this list? And apparently, nobody has been waiting five of six years for the answer after getting Arne's "I'll get back to you on that."

Finally, on April 2, 2013, Chicago's WBEZ radio aired a report debunking the claim. Here is their report in its entirety:


How much demand is there for Chicago charter schools? No one knows. With admissions to the city’s charter schools handled independently, unmonitored by the school district, neither CPS nor the state knows how many children actually apply to charters. April 2, 2013 By Becky Vevea.

Charter schools are expanding in Chicago, even as the district is closing schools due to declining enrollment.

Chicago Public Schools officials explain the seeming contradiction by citing a large demand for charter schools. Charter advocates and even the Chicago Tribune editorial board say 19,000 kids are on charter school waiting lists in the city.

There’s just one problem with that number: it’s not accurate. It significantly overstates demand.

A WBEZ analysis found the 19,000 figure counts applications, not students, meaning if a student applies to four schools, he or she is counted four times. It includes kids who have turned down charter seats and are now enrolled in other schools.

Perhaps the most startling finding is that a significant chunk--about 3,000--are high school dropouts applying for alternative schools. What’s more, saying that 19,000 students are on waiting lists to get into charter schools ignores another figure: there are between 3,000 and 5,000 available seats in charter schools right now, according to charter advocates.

The waiting list number comes from a biennial report compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2012. The figure is roughly calculated from a chart in that ISBE report that compares numbers for how many applications a charter school received with to the number of available seats. The numbers are from 2010-11, the most recent available.

But 19,000 applications is not the same as 19,000 students.

Andrew Broy, the executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), is cited as the source for the 19,000 figure in the Tribune’s editorial and also wrote his own opinion piece that ran in Crain’s Chicago Business on March 27.

But that same morning, Broy admitted during a briefing arranged by INCS to give reporters more context on charter school concerns that the waiting list number is off. “These numbers are not precise and no one has exact numbers and they’re moving all the time,” Broy said.

Waiting lists are not an accurate measure of demand, according to Neil Dorosin, executive director of the Institute for Innovation for Public School Choice, which designs centralized application systems for large urban school districts.

“If a kid’s on a waitlist at your school but they picked it as their eighth choice, to me that’s a meaningless number,” Dorosin said. “Those kids could also be on six other school’s waitlists and they might prefer those other schools.”

Charter waiting lists: even schools don’t know how many kids apply

By state law, charter schools are required to hold a lottery if demand for their school outstrips supply--if there are too many applications, and not enough seats.

Namaste Charter School, an exercise- and nutrition-focused charter in McKinley Park, held its lottery last Thursday. It received 430 applications for 67 available seats, mostly at the kindergarten level.

That sounds like a lot of demand, but Allison Lipsman, Namaste’s development director, said it's not as straightforward as it might seem.

“Parents want to hedge their bets as much as possible,” said Lipsman, adding that many families apply to lots of schools. She said a “decent number” of families turn down their offer from Namaste in favor of one of CPS’s popular gifted or magnet schools. The operations director at Legacy Charter School, a high-performing, single-campus charter on the city’s West Side, said sometimes families with multiple children turn down an offer because not all their children win seats in the lottery, and it’s logistically difficult for them to have children enrolled in multiple schools.

Because Chicago charters run their lotteries independently and admit students without any oversight from the school district, there is no way for CPS to centrally figure out how many individual students submitted those 19,000 applications.But some charter networks do keep track of unique applicants within the schools they operate.

Urban Prep is one such school, according to Tim King, the network’s executive director. He said 1,294 students submitted 1,797 applications for the 450 seats available this fall in Urban Prep’s three schools.

However, other charter school networks, including the city’s largest, Chicago International Charter School, say they don’t have admissions systems advanced enough to figure out how many actual kids have applied to their schools.

CICS spokeswoman Kate Proto said they received 5,701 applications for 1,922 open seats across 16 schools, leaving 3,779 on waiting lists. Proto said not every student chosen in the lottery accepts a seat at CICS. She estimated that CICS will have to pull 1,700 more kids off the waiting list to fill its empty seats.

There are other indicators demand may not be what advocates claim. For the last two years, Perspectives has leafleted neighborhoods to advertise available space in its five schools right up until the first day of school.

And last September, when CPS students spent seven days out of school due to a teachers strike, INCS, UNO and other charter groups boasted that about one-third of the city’s charters had open seats. Charters remained open because their teachers are not members of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Just because there’s a sector-wide waitlist, doesn’t mean that every individual school has a waitlist,” Broy said last week. He estimated there are 3,000 to 5,000 openings at charter schools this year.

Parent Diana Juarez has two daughters at Rowe Elementary and said two years ago, she walked right in and signed her kids up.

“Since they were a fairly new school there was still space for kindergarteners. And then there were a few spaces available in first grade, so I was able to immediately apply and put them in.”

Juarez says the charter school has grown more popular, and now holds a lottery.

“I was very, very lucky. Because I have also heard people who have applied to millions of schools and they haven't been able to get into any of them,” she said.

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the 19,000 figure taken from its 2012 report should not be misconstrued to mean that 19,000 kids are waiting to get into charters. She said there is no way for the state board to determine waiting list numbers.

99,031 applications for CPS magnet and selective elementary schools in 2013

CPS may not have charter school numbers, but it is able to determine the number of students vying to get into one popular set of schools.

That’s because the central office collects and tracks data on how many unique students apply to its magnet and selective enrollment programs.

Data provided by CPS shows that 13,105 children applied for 1,865 spots in selective enrollment programs this year. Because parents apply to multiple schools, they filed a total of 51,150 applications.

The same data is collected for magnet programs. This year, 13,725 students applied for 3,697 spots in magnet schools; 47,881 total applications were filed. CPS officials said there may be overlap between the two pools of applicants.

The numbers are even higher at the high school level. More than 18,000 students submitted 80,285 applications for spots in the district’s 10 selective enrollment high schools this coming fall.

Dropouts counted in 19,000 figure

Included in the INCS calculation is a group of alternative schools that do not compete for kids in the same way most charters do.

According to the ISBE report, Youth Connections Charter School had 6,889 applications and 3,885 open seats, generating a “waiting list” of 3004 students.

But Sheila Venson, executive director of YCCS, said the alternative schools, which can enroll about 4,000 high-school dropouts at a time, should not be lumped in with other charters when calculating waiting lists.

“I doubt if they’re enrolling kids the way we’re enrolling kids,” said Venson.

In 1997, YCCS was created by consolidating the city’s alternative high schools for dropouts. Demand for these types of schools has been historically high.

Venson said she has no idea where the numbers in the ISBE report came from—or why her schools would be included in the numbers used to prove demand for charter schools. That’s because YCCS has two official enrollment periods—one in September and one in January--and the schools essentially build up their waiting list and “purge” them it at the start of every semester, Venson explained.

A single application?

Though Andrew Broy from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools has insisted that 19,000 children are on waiting lists for Chicago charter schools, he now says he believes the real number is around 65 percent of that. He could not provide any basis for that calculation, other than to say he had done “spot checks with schools.”

He could not explain how any individual campus would be able to determine the number of unique applicants to charter schools system wide.

Broy admits that “no one has exact numbers on this, which are unknowable unless we move toward a single enrollment system.”

CPS had planned to move all high schools to a single enrollment system last fall--regulated by the district--with elementary schools following this year.

But when former schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard stepped down, the plan was put on hold.

Neil Dorosin of the Institute for Innovation for Public School Choice said single-application systems are better able to gauge school popularity and demand, because every student’s preferences are collected in one place.

Education Reporter Linda Lutton contributed to this report.


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

4 + 5 =