Our Report Highlights Civil Rights Concerns in Philadelphia Charter Schools

A new report by the Education Law Center, citing widespread noncompliance by charter schools with civil rights protections for students, urges Philadelphia’s Board of Education to monitor the city’s charter sector more closely and guard against discriminatory enrollment and educational practices.

The new study, “Safeguarding Educational Equity: Protecting Philadelphia Students’ Civil Rights Through Charter Oversight,” highlights data about the student population at charter schools and information compiled by the Charter School Office regarding compliance with certain measures designed to protect the rights of historically marginalized student groups, such as students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color.

ELC’s analysis focuses on the city’s “traditional charters” – excluding cyber schools and charter schools that are converted former district neighborhood schools. The report provides strong evidence that these traditional charter schools are not sharing equitably in the responsibility of educating all Philadelphia students. ELC’s analysis found that the demographic makeup of students in traditional charters in Philadelphia is strikingly different from the population in District schools in four key respects:

  • The population of economically disadvantaged students is 14 percentage points lower in the traditional charter sector (56%) vs. the district sector (70%).
  • The percentage of English learners in District schools (11%) is nearly three times higher than in traditional charters (4%), with three in ten charters having no English learners at all.
  • Few of the special education students in traditional charters are from the low-incidence disability categories, such as autism and intellectual disability, that typically are most expensive to serve.
  • The vast majority of traditional charter schools serve student populations that are two-thirds or more of one racial group – a significantly higher degree of segregation than is found in District schools.

The report contends that many of these demographic differences are a result of charter school practices. The School District’s own charter school evaluations frequently flag areas where charters fail to comply with laws or policies protecting students’ civil rights. However, enforcement is lacking. The School District’s scoring system used to evaluate charters permits a charter school to earn a renewal even if it has failing scores in the English learner, special education, and enrollment categories.

Charter schools are not serving a comparable population to district schools, which raises doubts about any claims that traditional charter schools outperform district schools. The concentration of more advantaged students in traditional charter schools and more disadvantaged students in district schools is unfair to all students and is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue.

The report was requested by the Student Achievement and Support Committee of the Philadelphia Board of Education after ELC raised concerns about inequities in charter schools in testimony last fall. While ELC and other civil rights advocates have raised concerns about the state charter school law, the report points out the need and possibility under existent laws for stronger charter school accountability measures at the local level.

The report spells out recommendations for action by the Board in its role of authorizing and renewing charter schools, including looking beyond academic and financial performance to also focus on issues of equity, changing the performance framework used to evaluate charters so that equity issues are prioritized, and expanding the capacity of the Charter School Office to provide adequate oversight.

The report is available here.

ELC Responds to 2019-20 Budget Proposal of Gov. Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced his proposed 2019-20 budget before the General Assembly on Feb. 5. The Education Law Center and other child advocacy groups had urged the governor to make a bold school funding proposal, including $400 million in new funds for basic education and $100 million for special education. The increases in is K-12 spending plan, which will be debated by the legislature over the next few months, were roughly half of what advocates had called for, though the governor did also propose significant increases in funding for pre-K and early intervention.

ELC issued a statement on the budget proposal, urging Harrisburg officials “to do more to accelerate state aid to the state’s most disadvantaged school districts.” The statewide PA Schools Work coalition, of which ELC is a member, also published a statement raising many of the same themes.