Demand for Charter Schools in Texas as big as the state itself

Business is booming at Texas charter schools. The independently operated public campuses continue to grow — and so do the waiting lists to get in.

IDEA charters — with 44 schools in San Antonio, Austin and the Rio Grande Valley — conducted their annual admission lottery on Saturday. More than 26,000 children applied; 7,000 were accepted.

Overall, 129,589 children are on charter waiting lists in Texas, more than double the 56,000 reported in 2011. Total charter enrollment in the state hit 227,827 last year.

“It’s clear that parents want more options,” says Randan Steinhauser, director of the Texas School Choice Coalition. “We need to strengthen and replicate our high-performing charters.”

Charter proponents say leveling the financial playing field would open more doors.

For years, the Texas Charter Schools Association has lobbied to close the state funding gap between their campuses and traditional school districts. The Texas Supreme Court is currently reviewing the state’s education financing system.

Traditional public schools receive $5.5 billion in capital construction money annually from the state; charters get none. For operations, charters receive an average of $1,000 less per student statewide than their counterparts.

Charter operators, who are licensed to provide “free” public education, say they do more with less through flexible staffing schedules and other economies.

In the Rio Grande Valley, competition from high-performing IDEA schools has prodded their public counterparts to tighten programs and improve performance.

Charters have demonstrated a knack for niche marketing. In Houston, a new Arabic dual-language charter quickly attracted three times more applicants than it could accommodate. Spanish immersion charters are drawing increasing interest in San Antonio’s suburbs.

Lengthening wait lists show that demand is outstripping charters’ ability to expand and build out.

In San Antonio, 4,901 children were on waiting lists for KIPP, Harmony and Great Hearts charter schools this year. In Houston, the queue grew to 32,793 for Harmony, KIPP and YES Prep charters.

Those figures do not include backlogs at IDEA or any of the scores of smaller, community-based charters.

Matt Prewett, president of Texas Parents Union, said the state’s per-pupil allocation for charters doesn’t cover the expense of educating special-needs students, including those with severe disabilities, or transportation.

“The solution is to push the Texas Legislature to provide adequate funding,” Prewett said.

Colleen Dippel, who taught at a KIPP charter school in Houston, launched the nonprofit Families Empowered to advise parents with children on waiting lists.

Dippel’s group surveyed 2,500 wait-list families and found that 60 percent were seeking charter enrollment for a better academic environment than could be found at their assigned neighborhood school.

“We believe that every child should have access to an excellent education, regardless of income,” she says.

Pointing to the charter wait lists and long-odds lotteries, Dippel and Steinhauser are trying out a new slogan: “Luck shouldn’t determine my future.”

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