Philadelphia’s Black-led charter schools play an important role in educating thousands of city children, yet are routinely subjected to inequities and racial bias by the School District, leaders of a new coalition said Tuesday.
The African American Charter Schools Coalition formed to highlight disparities in the treatment of its schools and call for a level playing field, leaders said. Fifteen of Philadelphia’s 17 Black-run charters, enrolling about 12,000 students, constitute the coalition.
“Our schools have collectively dealt with racism, inequity, and biases when it comes to our schools’ oversight, expansion, and renewal opportunities,” said Naomi Johnson Booker, a leader of the group, longtime city educator, and founder of two charters.
“We need to raise awareness that there are distinct inequities between Black charter schools and white charter schools,” said Stacy Phillips, the founder of West Philadelphia Achievement Elementary Charter School.
A third of all of Philadelphia’s 200,000-plus public school students — more than 75,000 children — attend charters, which are authorized by the Philadelphia school board but run independently with taxpayer money.
Black-led schools make up less than a fifth of the 87 charters schools operating in the district. But according to an analysis by the coalition they account for about 87% of the 23 closed or recommended for nonrenewal by the board between 2010 and 2020. (The school board makes such decisions based on academic or operational performance.) A national study published by education researchers this spring found authorizers were less likely to accept applications to open charter schools when the applicant was Black or Hispanic.
“That points to systemic biases,” said Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School and a member of the coalition. Charters welcome accountability, but if the system disproportionately targets Black-run schools, that must be addressed, he said.
In a letter to the coalition, school board president Joyce Wilkerson said the board and the district’s charter schools office equitably apply the framework for charter school monitoring and evaluation.
“We are committed to implementing high standards,” Wilkerson wrote. “It is this commitment that motivates us to ensure that our system of authorizing charter schools is clear, unbiased, and holds all schools accountable.”
Coalition leaders said Tuesday they want to work with the district to identify and ameliorate policies they say target them unfairly; Wilkerson, in her letter, said she was eager to be collaborative.
The African American Charter School Coalition’s mission is crucial in a city where Black students make up the largest demographic group, members said.
Elaine Wells, a parent supporter of the group and mother of three Black sons, said attending Boys Latin of Philadelphia, a Black-led charter, transformed her young men.
“These are schools that share in the experiences that our kids share in,” said Wells. “They know the challenges that your kids face. They know where our kids are coming from.”
Wells said too often, people in power tell Black parents what’s best for their children “but none of those people are sending their kids to the schools that they try to tell you your kid should go to.” She said coalition leaders are doing important work and ought to be allowed to expand rather than fight for their existence in some cases.
Black-run schools typically employ more Black teachers. Research shows that having Black teachers is important to students of color; it can affect academic outcomes.
The coalition, which debuted its “Black Schools Matter” campaign at a news conference Tuesday, drew support from politicians including Council members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Curtis Jones Jr., Isaiah Thomas and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.
Williams (D., Phila.), a longtime charter backer, said the group was not “asking for a favor. We’re not suggesting that an underperforming school that’s getting public money should be allowed to continue” but “we need the same consideration from our friends as our non-African American charter schools are currently receiving.”
Phillips, of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, said without change, Black charters could cease to exist in the city.
“This is the first time in this country’s history that Black people have been able to organize, start, operate and be able to be the major decision-makers for public schools for our children,” Phillips said. “That is absolutely worth preserving and protecting.”