Philadelphia’s school board has launched an investigation into how it authorizes charter schools, responding to a local coalition’s allegations that the city school system is tougher on Black-led charters.

The news came Wednesday when school board president Joyce Wilkerson announced the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP would complete an independent investigation into allegations of racism and discrimination. Ballard Spahr is completing the work at no charge, but a third-party firm with expertise in racial equity analyses is expected to consult, and the School District will pay for that company’s services.

“The board takes allegations of racial bias seriously, and we want everyone to know that we are looking transparently at what we do in order to continuously improve our work on behalf of Philadelphia’s students,” Wilkerson said in a statement. “We also want our minority-founded and -led schools to know that we recognize the value their voices bring to the table as we continue to strengthen charter authorizing practices.”

In Pennsylvania, local school boards authorize all charter schools that operate in their boundaries, and can close poorly performing charters. The results of the investigation are expected to be released in the fall of 2022.

The African American Charter Schools Coalition has said that “systemic racism and systemic biases” threaten school choice in Philadelphia.

Black-led schools make up a fraction of the 85 charter schools operating in Philadelphia. But according to a coalition analysis, they accounted for the majority of schools closed or recommended for nonrenewal by the school board between 2010 and 2020. A national study published by education researchers found entities that authorize charters were less likely to accept applications to open charter schools when the applicant was Black or Hispanic.

Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia and a member of the coalition, said its leaders were “happy” with the news that the investigation, first proposed and discussed this spring, was moving forward with a concrete timeline.

”We’re pleased that the school board is addressing this problem in a serious manner,” said Jones, adding that it was crucial for charters led by Black people and other groups that have been traditionally disenfranchised “have authorship and ownership and agency in their own education.”