As National School Choice Week comes to a close, the School District of Philadelphia’s new governing board is set to review and vote on its first set of new charter-school applications. What better time to reflect on how charters have affected the city’s education landscape since they arrived 22 years ago?
Our organization, Research for Action, has been studying public education reforms in Philadelphia and across the country for 25 years.
As we consider the state of school choice in our city, here are five revealing takeaways from research and policy analysis to keep in mind:
First, parental demand for charter schools remains high in Philadelphia. Even with more than 85 schools and enrollment of over one-third of the city’s public-school students, many charter schools report long waiting lists as families seek admission into what they perceive to be a better option for their children. While demand alone should not determine school policy, it is impossible to ignore.
Second, 20 years of school choice has not increased racial or economic integration in our schools. Disappointingly, research on this issue in Pennsylvania has suggested the opposite. Those with means continue to access the most exclusive schools (be they private, magnet, charter, or neighborhood public schools in gentrified communities). In contrast, choices for the most vulnerable students are too often limited to struggling schools (district and charter) already serving high concentrations of needy students.
Third, compared with district schools (neighborhood and magnet combined), Philadelphia’s charter schools (traditional and Renaissance combined) serve proportionately fewer students with the most extreme needs — students in deep poverty, English-language learners, students with severe high-cost disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care or returning from juvenile justice. For example, a recent RFA study found that Philadelphia’s traditional charter schools serve only one-third the number of students experiencing homelessness compared with district schools. An important caveat is that in recent years, as the Renaissance charter sector has grown, these overall demographic disparities have gradually decreased.
Meanwhile, generalizations about the quality of charter schools vs. district schools are particularly difficult, as differences in student demographics and other operational differences complicate comparisons. In both sectors, average performance indicators mask wide variation. In fact, both demographic disparities and gaps in student outcomes are larger within each sector than between sectors.
Fourth, the charter sector overall has done no better at attracting and retaining racially diverse teachers or administrators. The teacher-student racial disparities are stark in both sectors. This is a troubling finding because research has firmly established that black and Latinx students — and all students — learn better when they have contact with diverse teachers. Recent studies have shown that the adults in front of students in Philadelphia’s charter schools are even more white and less black than in district schools. Research has also found that principal mobility and teacher inexperience are higher in the charter sector, though daily teacher attendance is higher than in district schools.
Fifth, Harrisburg’s charter policy has largely failed Philadelphia. The legislative intent of the charter law is to improve learning “for all pupils,” provide “expanded choices ... within the public school system,” and to “serve as a model” to other public schools. However, policymakers have treated them as a replacement, rather than a supplement. To begin, the legislature has failed to provide adequate funding to accommodate charter expansion without negatively impacting district schools. It turns out that you can’t add new choices without adding new cost. RFA’s recent study estimates that, even with massive layoffs and school closings, new charter expansion costs the district approximately $8,000 per charter student in year one and still $4,000 per student by year five.
Pennsylvania used to provide over $219 million per year to partially offset this impact. But in 2011 the state eliminated that line item and walked away from its obligation. In its place is now a charter weight in the basic education formula that provides Philadelphia less than 4 percent of the prior charter reimbursement. The impact has essentially pitted charter schools against the district as charter growth drains resources and it struggles to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, school districts are mandated to “authorize” charter schools but not provided actual authority to control growth in a responsible manner. Some of this stems from flaws in the charter law, some from questionable legal reasoning by the Charter Appeals Board, and some from an unwillingness of school districts to test the limits of their authority.
We should not begrudge families for demanding better choices for their children. But it’s important to understand how the introduction of charters to Philadelphia has affected the entire education ecosystem. If Pennsylvania is to live up to the intent of the charter law to improve public education for all, it will need policy reforms that take a systemic approach to providing adequate resources for all schools and ensure needy students get the same access to high-quality education as our most privileged.
David Lapp is director of policy research at Research for Action. Kate Shaw is Research for Action’s executive director. Research for Action is an independent nonprofit education research organization in Philadelphia.