State Charter School Caps Are Keeping Kids Back

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As state legislatures engage in their 2021 sessions, we are updating our analyses of a number of key policy issues. First and foremost, we are looking at the issue of caps on charter school growth.

Artificial caps on charter school growth—set by state law rather than demand—restrict parents’ ability to select the best public school for their child. The potential size of the charter school sector—based on parent demand—is almost three times larger than today’s actual enrollment. That means about five million students are enrolled at a school that might not be a good fit for them because there aren’t enough charter schools open to meet parental demand.

Heading into the 2021 legislative sessions, 20 state charter school laws contained caps on charter school growth. In six of these states, the caps are significantly hindering growth:

  • Connecticut (only allows public charter schools to open in about 20% of the state’s districts)
  • Maine (the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state has been reached)
  • Massachusetts (the state's cap on a school district's total charter school tuition payment to commonwealth charter schools in the districts performing in the lowest 10 percent statewide is a constraint on growth in many school districts in the state)
  • New York (the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in New York City has been reached)
  • Ohio (only allows start-up charter schools in about 6% of the state’s districts)
  • West Virginia (only allows three charter schools before July 1, 2023 and three charter schools every three years thereafter)

As sessions gear up across the country, we are on guard against any bills that would institute a new moratorium or place another arbitrary cap on charter school growth. Right now, we are most concerned about a bill that is being advanced in Rhode Island that would impose a moratorium on charter schools through the 2023-24 school year (SB 13). Most troubling, the bill would prevent six schools from opening or expanding that were recently authorized by the state. SB 13 passed out of the Senate and is now in the House.

On the flip side, we hope to see proactive efforts to lift charter school caps in some states. Already, West Virginia has acted to modify its cap. It now allows 10 charter schools every three years.  

The ultimate cap, of course, is the lack of a charter school law on the books. Only five states have yet to enact such laws: Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont. This year, we helped our partners in South Dakota push a bill that would allow for four community-based schools focused on Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota language and culture. While it passed in the Senate Education Committee, it was voted down in the Senate. We expect to make another push there in 2022.

Check out the cap restrictions on your state using our charter law dashboard.


Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.