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Report: Philly charter schools serve more affluent, advantaged students than rest of district

Philadelphia charter schools have fewer economically disadvantaged students, fewer students with severe disabilities, and fewer English language learners than traditional public schools, according to the Education Law Center.

The Philadelphia School Board listens to testimony Thursday before voting to reject three new charter schools. A new report urges the board to more closely monitor whether the city's charter schools are providing equitable access to students.
The Philadelphia School Board listens to testimony Thursday before voting to reject three new charter schools. A new report urges the board to more closely monitor whether the city's charter schools are providing equitable access to students.Read more / File Photograph

Philadelphia’s charter schools serve a more affluent and advantaged population than do its traditional public schools, according to a new report by the Education Law Center, which questioned whether the charters are complying with civil rights laws.

The report, issued Thursday, said city charter schools enrolled a smaller share of economically disadvantaged students — 54 percent, compared with 70 percent in district schools. It also found fewer students with severe disabilities and one-third as many English language learners in charters, along with higher levels of racial isolation.

The report limited its analysis to 58 “traditional” charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run schools serving the district. Philadelphia has 87 in total, including ones that took over existing neighborhood schools — so-called Renaissance charters — and draw students from specific neighborhoods.

“As a whole, traditional charter schools in Philadelphia are failing to ensure equitable access for all students,” said the report. It said "the conduct of these charters raises systemic concerns about the extent to which they are compliant with federal and state laws protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities."

The report recommended that the school board — which, like others across Pennsylvania, is tasked with overseeing charter schools — make equitable access a focus during its evaluations of charters.

Reynelle Brown Staley, policy director for the law center, said she believed it was the first time such an analysis had been done in Philadelphia. It was issued at the request of the new school board, which rejected three applications for new charter schools Thursday.

The board — appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney last year as the city took back control of its schools from the state — indicated it is looking critically at the role of charters, which enroll one-third, or 70,000, of Philadelphia public-school students.

Speaking after the board’s vote, member Christopher McGinley said that charter schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere were contributing to "the resegregation of our schools.”

“Charter school enrollments that are not aligned to the demographics of the city are of major concern to me personally,” McGinley said.

Charter advocates pushed back on the report, saying it ignored segregation in the district’s own schools, and noting that some charters give preference to certain zip codes, which affects their demographics.

David Saenz, spokesman for Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit group that has given money to charter and regular public schools, said while the report “provides important data ... families seek the opportunity for students to achieve, not simply to enroll. At-risk students have too little access to great schools in Philadelphia, period.”

The law center found that a third of charter schools did not meet a requirement to post information on their websites about English language learners, Staley said. The report also said several charters did not screen students whose surveys indicated they spoke a language other than English at home to see if they needed support services.

The center used data reported by charters to the school district, which collects limited information about charters’ special education practices, Staley said. As a result, the center couldn’t fully evaluate charters’ compliance with requirements.

But it receives phone calls from families who say they’ve been “steered away” from a charter because their child has a disability, Staley said.

While district and charter schools in the city serve similar percentages of special education students, charters serve a lower rate of students with more severe — and higher-cost — disabilities, including autism, the report said.

That disparity has a financial impact: School districts pay charter schools based on what the districts spend on their own special-education students. So if the school district has students with costlier needs, it pays charters based on what it spends — even if the charters have students who are less costly to serve.

More than half of charters had 1 percent or fewer white students -- compared with 9 percent of district schools with the same margin, the report said. It also said charters were more than twice as likely as district schools to have a majority of white students.

Charter proponents faulted the report for not addressing results. Overall, charter schools in Philadelphia outperform district schools, said Stephen DeMaura, Excellent Schools Pa.’s executive director.

The law center’s report said demographic differences between charters and district schools cast doubt on such comparisons.