Philadelphia school board officials said Tuesday that they would launch an investigation into allegations that racism and bias hit Black-led charter schools hard, resulting in a disproportionate number targeted for closure by the district.
”Black schools should be and must be a viable option,” Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia, said during a news conference held by the African-American Charter Schools Coalition, which called for a moratorium on closures of Black-led charters until a probe is completed. “We need to stand up against the systemic racism and the systemic biases that threaten that choice and threaten our schools.”
Later Tuesday, members of the Philadelphia school board vowed to hire an outside organization to analyze data and examine the allegations. But the board said it has an obligation to hold all schools accountable.
The charter office “operates on the principle that charter schools have been granted a high level of autonomy in exchange for a high level of accountability for providing Philadelphia students with the education that they require in order to thrive and succeed,” board member Julia Danzy said Tuesday during a City Council hearing on the district’s budget.
Board president Joyce Wilkerson said that the board believes “there’s a real role” for Black-led schools and that the investigation will examine specific allegations of discrimination. But she said it will also “take a look at the broader issues that are inherent in the charter school system that operate differently for minority-led charter schools.”
Charter schools are authorized by the school board and publicly funded but independently run. About 120,000 Philadelphia students attend schools run by the district, while 70,000 attend charters.
City Councilmembers Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Isaiah Thomas, and Curtis Jones Jr. as well as state lawmakers joined the virtual news conference held by the charter coalition Tuesday, raising concerns about possible discrimination by the district and the board.
”Anyone who says they’re concerned about equity” must be concerned with ensuring school choice, said State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.), a longtime charter backer. He told the hundreds of people on the Zoom call they could no longer allow politicians to visit their communities without asking their “position on supporting African American charter schools. … What are they going to do with a school district, a school board, which continuously, systematically, is tearing down diversity, inclusion, and most importantly representation among students and teacher populations with the African American community?”
Later at the Council hearing, Jones suggested the district’s actions weren’t necessarily intentional.
But, he said, “whether or not you think you are racist, if your policy impacts disparately a group of people, then it is in fact discrimination.” He suggested cultural competency play a role in charter evaluations.
Black charter leaders in the city have raised concerns for years about how the district treats their schools compared with those with other leadership.
The African-American Charter Schools Coalition launched last year and now encompasses 20 schools serving 15,000 students. It has cited an analysis the group did that showed Black-led charters make up 19% of the city’s charter community but account for 87% of the schools closed or recommended for nonrenewal by the school board between 2010 and 2020.
Last month, the Philadelphia school board voted not to renew charter agreements for two schools run by Universal Companies, a group founded by record-industry legend Kenny Gamble. Universal alleged bias in the nonrenewal recommendations.
”This is a time of reckoning in our nation,” said Leigh Purnell, chief academic officer for Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School. “It is time for us all to take a closer look at our systems and processes … that disproportionately impact people of color, and the organizations that serve them.”
School board and district leaders appeared before Council on Tuesday to present information and answer questions about the school system’s $3.2 billion budget, which has been fortified by more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds to be spent over several years.
Answering questions about what school will look like in the fall, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told Council his goal is “to safely welcome all students back to in-person learning five days a week. Naturally, this is contingent on the CDC relaxing social distancing requirements.”
About 30% of district students in prekindergarten through ninth grade are now back inside district classrooms two days a week. The rest opted for fully virtual learning. Students in grades 10 through 12 don’t yet have the option to return to school buildings.
Hite said the district would offer a fully virtual option in the fall, but it will look “very different” than this year.
“This current hybrid approach is unsustainable,” he said. “It is too difficult to navigate.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.