Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Logo
Massachusetts Charter Schools

Charter School Technical Advisory 16-3: Enrollment Processes and FAQ's

To:Charter School Leaders and Superintendents
From:Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Date:September 6, 2016

This technical advisory provides guidance regarding enrollment policies for charter schools as referred to in the charter school statute, G.L. c. 71, § 89, and the charter school regulations, 603 CMR 1.00. The charter school regulations were amended in March 2014 to better align with current guidance and policy and to strengthen key aspects of the accountability system for charter schools. The amended charter school regulations, 603 CMR 1.05, contain new requirements relating to charter school enrollment. This technical advisory highlights key requirements, clarifies legal responsibilities, and addresses frequently asked questions regarding a range of topics including, but not limited to, eligibility criteria, enrollment processes, lottery procedures, waitlists, and the requirement to backfill. Answers to "Frequently Asked Questions" will follow this technical advisory.

All charter schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are, by definition, public schools and provide students and families with educational options. They are open to all students who reside in the Commonwealth, on a space available basis. The charter school statute states that "charter schools shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special need, proficiency in the English language, or academic achievement." G.L. c. 71, § 89(m). Charter schools may not charge tuition. If there are fewer seats for admission than eligible applicants, charter schools must accept students for admission, and place other applicants on the school's waitlist, by using a fair and transparent lottery process.

Eligibility Criteria

A student must reside in Massachusetts at the time of application and when an offer of admission is made in order to be eligible for admission to a charter school. Students who reside outside of Massachusetts are not eligible for admission to charter schools. For Horace Mann charter schools, a student must reside in the school district in which the charter school is located to be eligible for admission.1

Enrollment Process

Every charter school must adopt a policy that describes an enrollment process that aligns to current Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) requirements and guidance (See 603 CMR 1.05 and the enrollment policy checklist). As a material term of the school's charter, such a policy requires approval by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education (Commissioner). Enrollment policies must be readily understandable by parents and guardians, provide them notice regarding what is required of applicants, and clearly indicate all potential consequences for not complying with the school's enrollment policy. If a school wishes to change its enrollment policy, the school must submit an updated enrollment policy to the Department with proposed changes, application form, as well as a completed enrollment policy and application checklist. After addressing the Department's preliminary feedback, the board of trustees must vote to approve the proposed changes and then submit an amendment request as described in the Guidelines for Charter Amendments Subject to Commissioner Approval .

Enrollment policies must not discriminate based upon race, color, national origin, creed, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special need, proficiency in the English language, or academic achievement. Charter schools should look to avoid any possible unintended consequences of their enrollment policies and recruitment strategies to ensure that the policies are welcoming to and understandable by all students and families. A charter school that operates multiple campuses under a single charter may assign students, in accordance with its enrollment policy, to a specified campus for reasons of geographic proximity, student safety, or program delivery. 603 CMR 1.05(13). Charter schools may not administer tests to potential applicants or condition enrollment on results of any test of ability or achievement. 603 CMR 1.05(3)(a). Additionally, charter schools may not charge a fee for admission or use financial incentives to recruit students. Finally, charter schools may not require potential students and their families to attend interviews or informational meetings as a condition of enrollment.

Before beginning an enrollment process, charter schools must take the following steps.

  • Determine the grades for which they are accepting applications. Charter schools, at a minimum, must accept applications for each grade required to backfill in accordance with 603 CMR 1.05(10)(c).

  • Determine the spaces available in each grade based on the school's maximum enrollment in its charter or in its growth plan, whichever is less, and the estimated number of returning students.

  • Set a deadline or deadlines for accepting student applications, such deadline cannot occur before January 1.

  • Publicize the application deadline(s) with reasonable notice of at least one month before the deadline. 603 CMR 1.05(5).

  • Set a date for the lottery with reasonable public notice given at least one week prior to the lottery. 603 CMR 1.05(9).

  • Establish how long students and families have to accept an offer of admission.

  • The Department suggests that charter schools determine when students must begin attending school in accordance with its attendance policy, which must be aligned with all applicable laws, regulations, and Department guidance2.

Following the application due date, charter schools should determine which applications receive preferences for admission as follows.

  • Siblings of students who currently attend the charter school. Siblings are children who share a common biological or legal parent. Siblings of students who are scheduled to exit at the end of the school year in which the lottery is held receive an enrollment preference, while siblings of students admitted but not yet attending the school do not receive an enrollment preference. Children who live in different households but share a common parent are siblings for the purpose of sibling preference. If a student moves out of the city or town and continues attending a Commonwealth charter school, that student's siblings have an enrollment preference provided they live in Massachusetts.

    Children who may live in the same household but do not share a common parent are not siblings for the purpose of sibling preference. Siblings of alumni/ae shall not receive a preference for enrollment. Siblings of applicants who have been accepted for admission but are not yet attending, including twins, shall not receive a preference. With the exception of Horace Mann charter schools, no students are entitled to a sibling preference during a lottery held in advance of the first year a school operates.

  • Residents are students who live in the city or the town in which the charter school is located. With the exception of Horace Mann charter schools, discussed in more detail below, residents attending district, charter, private, or parochial schools receive an equal preference if they live in the city or the town in which the charter school is located. In the case of a regional charter school, residents are students who live in the school districts specified in the school's charter. Students must live in the relevant city, town, or school district at the time of application.

  • Non-residents are students who live within Massachusetts but outside the city or town in which the charter school is located. For regional charter schools, non-resident students are those students who live outside of the school districts specified in the school's charter.

Commonwealth and Horace Mann charter schools must hold admission lotteries for the grades for which they are accepting applications if there are fewer spaces available than eligible applicants. The charter school statute, G.L. c. 71, § 89, specifies different preferences for admission to Commonwealth and Horace Mann Charter Schools.

Commonwealth Charter Schools Admission Preferences

For Commonwealth charter schools, the first preference in admission is provided to siblings of those students actually attending the charter school at the time of the lottery. If the school has not reached capacity after admitting all eligible siblings, the second preference in admission is provided to residents. If the school still has not reached capacity after admitting all siblings and residents the school then may admit non-residents.

Horace Mann Charter Schools Admission Preferences

Admission procedures for Horace Mann charter schools differ somewhat from those for Commonwealth charter schools. In part, this is because a number of Horace Mann charter schools are formed from the conversion of all or part of an existing public school.

A Horace Mann charter school must admit students in the following order of preference:

  1. for the initial lottery, any students attending said school, or attending school in the school building previously occupied by said school, on the date that the final application is filed with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board);
  2. for the initial lottery, siblings, of any students attending said school, or attending school in the school building previously occupied by said school, on the date that the final application is filed with the Board;
  3. in all subsequent lotteries, siblings of students currently attending the school;
  4. students who are currently enrolled in the public schools of the district in which the Horace Mann charter school is located; and
  5. students who reside in the city or town in which the Horace Mann charter school is located.

Once a student is attending a Horace Mann charter school, that student has a right to continue attending the school as long as they remain a resident of the district in which the Horace Mann charter school is located. Currently attending students who move out of the district may no longer attend the Horace Mann charter school. However, a student who was attending a public school in the district under G.L. c. 71, § 12B, prior to admission to the charter school, may continue attending the Horace Mann charter school despite living outside of the district.

Application for Admission

Every charter school must submit to the Department for approval its proposed application for admission. All subsequent revisions, with the exception of changing deadlines and correcting minor grammatical errors, must also be submitted to the Department for approval before distribution. Additionally, charter schools must provide reasonable public notice, given at least one month prior to all application deadlines.

Please note that charter schools must notify all applicants in writing of the rights of students with diverse learning needs to attend the charter school and to receive accommodations and support services, including students who may have disabilities, require special education, or who are English language learners. Charter schools must include this notice as part of the school's application and enrollment materials. Every charter school must make information regarding the availability of services for students generally available in the school's outreach materials, through the student handbook, and on the school's website. See 603 CMR 1.05(4). This notice must be made available in the native language of the parents or guardians.

Enrollment Lottery Procedures

A charter school must hold a lottery to determine which students will receive an offer of admission if there are more applications received than seats available. The Department recommends holding a single lottery for each grade for which applications were accepted. The Department does not recommend holding separate lotteries for each preference for admission category; e.g., "sibling applicants only" first, "resident applicants only" second, and "non-resident applicants only" last. A single lottery will enable charter schools to track the original random lottery order (either manually drawn or electronically determined) while still maintaining and tracking preference for admission. While this recommended lottery procedure may differ from prior lottery practice, a single lottery will facilitate accurate and compliant waitlist maintenance.

Every time an admissions lottery takes place, the process must be fair, and all rules must be consistently applied. The charter school regulations, 603 CMR 1.05(9), state that all lotteries for charter school seats shall be conducted in a public place with a neutral party drawing names, and with reasonable public notice given at least one week prior to the lottery. Schools may conduct lotteries electronically; in such cases a neutral party shall certify that the process is fair and that selection is random. Drawing numbers, which have been specifically assigned to each application received by the school, rather than drawing individual student names, is permissible to ensure the privacy of student information as required by state law. The parent or guardian of each student, however, is entitled to know his or her lottery number in advance of the drawing to ensure the transparency and fairness of the process. If the charter school uses names, the school needs to notify parents of this practice when they complete an application and allow parents to opt out of having their child(ren)'s name(s) publicly used.

As specified in 603 CMR 1.05(3)(b), charter schools may not set any principal application deadlines or hold any enrollment lotteries for student admissions for the upcoming school year until after January 1st. Every charter school shall conclude its principal enrollment process no later than March 15th of each year.

After the Initial Lottery

If the principal enrollment process of a Commonwealth or Horace Mann charter school fails to fill all the available slots, the school may repeat the process, provided that the school follows enrollment preferences and completes enrollment processes previously outlined.

All charter schools must submit a Pre-Enrollment Report to the Department by the specified deadline. 603 CMR 1.05(8); 603 CMR 1.08. In addition, a charter school is prohibited from exceeding the school's maximum enrollment in its charter or in its growth plan, whichever is less. A school's enrollment limits are material terms of the charter, and exceeding these limits is a consideration in determining whether a school has been faithful to its charter.

Commonwealth charter schools also must avoid admitting students in excess of a sending district's net school spending cap. See G.L. c. 71, § 89(i)(2). The Department provides annual notifications to all Commonwealth charter schools regarding the sending districts that are at or near their net school spending cap in advance of enrollment decisions by schools. If admitting a student would cause the sending district to exceed its tuition cap, then the charter school must skip over the student and put him/her on the school's waitlist. The only exception to this circumstance is the admission of siblings, provided no other students have been admitted. 603 CMR 1.05(10)(b).

A student is admitted to a charter school if a written offer of admission is made and an acceptance is received. Once students are admitted, charter schools may administer placement tests and place students in the appropriate grades, even if the grades differ from those for which the students applied. If placement in a different grade occurs, the charter school is obligated to educate such a student appropriately and provide a space in the appropriate grade.

Once a student accepts an offer of admission and begins attending the charter school, that student has a right to continue attending the school through the full range of grades offered. For students attending a Commonwealth charter school, this right exists even if the student's district of residence within Massachusetts changes.

Description of Waitlist

Charter schools must place the names of students not offered admission on a waitlist in the order the names are drawn or electronically determined during a lottery. 603 CMR 1.05(10). The Department recommends that each charter school maintain a single waitlist for the grades for which they accepted applications. If a charter school chooses to maintain separate waitlists for each preference for admission category, the school must retain the original manually drawn or electronically determined order. The order of a student's placement on a waitlist may change depending on preferences that exist at the time an offer of admission is extended, such as a student moving up on a waitlist due to their sibling now attending or changes in residential status. It is impermissible to move a child to the bottom of waitlist based on a preference change. For example, charter schools cannot simply place a child who recently obtained sibling status at the bottom of the "sibling waitlist". Charter schools must specify rules for creation and maintenance of waitlists clearly and in writing as part of their enrollment policies.

In accordance with G.L. c. 71, § 89(n); 603 CMR 1.05; and guidelines established by the Department, "every charter school shall submit to the Department, no later than June 1st, the list of students who entered the lottery but did not gain admission. The information provided must include, but is not limited to, students' names (first, middle, last); dates of birth; towns of residence; and grades." The charter school regulations state that "schools shall maintain waitlists only for the school year for which the students applied, provided that a charter school may choose to maintain any waitlists that were established prior to March 31, 2014, until such waitlists are exhausted, provided that such maintenance is clearly articulated in the school's enrollment policy approved by the Department." A charter school shall offer admission to students on the waitlist if another student stops attending the charter school for any reason in accordance with the school's enrollment policy and the requirements of the statute and regulations. Students offered admission from the waitlist must attend the same grade in which the vacancy occurred. If there is no waitlist, a charter school should publicize all open seats to the students of the sending district or districts and make every reasonable effort to fill vacant seats.

Requirement to Fill Vacancies or "Backfill"

Charter schools must continue all reasonable efforts to fill vacant seats until February 15th, and if the school chooses, it may continue to try to fill the seat after February 15th. Unless the school's policy or a term of its charter requires, the law does not require charter schools to fill vacant seats in the last half of the grades offered and in grades 10, 11, and 12. If a school has an odd number of grades, more than half of grades offered are included in grades for which the school must fill vacant seats. A vacancy not filled after February 15th moves into the subsequent grade, to be filled the following September. If the school fills vacancies beyond the statutory requirements, the school must clearly articulate its practice in its enrollment policy. The Department encourages charter schools to adopt backfilling practices that provide the broadest access to new students.

If a space becomes available and offering admission to a student on the waitlist would cause his or her sending district to exceed their net school spending cap, the charter school should skip over that student but keep them on the waitlist. 603 CMR 1.05(10)(b). If the student on the waitlist is a sibling of a student currently attending the charter school, however, the school may offer admission to that student, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will pay the tuition to the charter school, subject to state appropriations. 603 CMR 1.05(10)(b).

Recruitment and Retention

Massachusetts charter schools are required to have student recruitment and retention plans that include deliberate, specific strategies to attract, enroll, and retain a student population whose profile, when compared to students in similar grades in schools from which the charter school enrolls students, is comparable academically and demographically. G.L. c. 71, § 89(e) and (f).

The statute also requires that the plan include a detailed description of deliberate, specific strategies that the school will use to maximize the number of students who successfully complete all school requirements and to prevent students from dropping out. The student recruitment and retention plan is reported on and updated annually through the charter school accountability process. When renewing a school's charter, the Board takes into account the extent to which the school following its retention and recruitment plan. G.L. c. 71, § 89(dd).

1 The one exception to this rule is for students who are already attending a school in the school district through school choice under G.L. c. 71, § 12B.

2 "A school may not remove a non-attending student from the enrollment without evidence that the student does not intend to return to school. Each district/school must have a procedure for investigating extended absences and must document reasonable efforts to locate the student and determine the reason for not attending. The procedure should include attempts to contact the parents/guardian by phone, through certified mail, and by a home visit." For more information see Attendance and Dropout Reporting Guidelines .

Last Updated: June 4, 2021

Contact Us

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
135 Santilli Highway, Everett, MA 02149

Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370


Disclaimer: A reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.