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Philadelphia’s Charter Schools: The Cost of Choice

By Payton Capes-Davis, student at University of Florida

A Nation at Risk

The 1983 U.S Department of Education’s report, “A Nation at Risk”, marked a pivotal point in educational reform. The report warned of closing schools, detrimental deficits in curriculums, and that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” As panic spread amongst the American people as to how to improve student performances, the charter school movement was born. In 1997, Pennsylvania enacted the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, which allowed for local schools boards to review and authorize applications for groups wanting to establish charter schools in the given area.

What is a Charter School?

At their core, charter schools are independently operated, publicly funded, tuition-free schools that are typically established in areas that contain underperforming public schools. Charter schools are exempt from certain district policies that are typically applied to public schools. These policies include oversight in curriculums, length of the school day and year, hiring practices of teachers and staff, disciplinary measures, and extracurricular programs.

The establishment of charter schools was meant to “free marketize” schooling by providing more choice to families on where they could send their children. However, it isn’t as easy as it seems; charters can limit their number of admitted students through the use of lottery admittance policies. The lottery system requires that families submit their child’s name into a pool of “applicants” and attend a “lottery draw-day” to see if their child is admitted into the school. Some argue that this system inherently creates an inequity in access as all the students who are not chosen in the lottery system, will ultimately be required to attend the original public schools they are trying to avoid.

Philadelphia by the Numbers

A 2015 study showed that Philadelphia was among 14 other states from 2010-2014 to experience an 80% increase in charter school openings. Roughly 75,000 students this year (2020-2021) will have attended one of the 101 charter schools in Philadelphia. As per Pennsylvania state law, the state is required to pay funding to schools based on each student enrolled. When state funding is allocated per student-head, students who switch from public schools to charter schools take state funding with them. In 2019, charter schools received 31% of state funding compared to 53% of funding that goes to district public schools. Many teachers will point out that although the state law  makes sense, it fails to acknowledge that even when students leave, public schools still need to meet salary demands despite a loss in funds.

Does Charter Mean Better?

Like public schools, charter schools vary in  overall student  performance and can fail to meet state standards of academic achievement. However, a recent study suggests that Pennsylvania charter schools as a whole are not outperforming their public school counter parts. A 2019 study explains that both Black and Hispanic charter school students face larger learning gaps than the average White students in traditional public schools. Charter school education has differential impacts on minority students. While Black students experience 24 additional days of learning in charter schools, Hispanic students experience no significant difference in learning gains from charter education. Lastly, a 2015 study shows that White students in urban areas experience an overall decrease in learning days in charter schools compared to their public-school peers.

Equal Access for All

The Philadelphia area has a long history of struggles meeting the needs of underserved student populations. Charters schools are required to abide by the Pennsylvania CSL (Charter School Law) that specifically states that the schools must, “Increase learning opportunities for all pupils.” However, a recent study suggests that traditional charter schools are not equally serving disabled students, limited English proficient students (EL), students in poverty, and students of color.

Charter school students with disabilities are typically those who require aides and extra services. As of 2019, only 7% of Philadelphia charter schools serve at or above the average number of disabled students in the respective district school. This study also found that charter schools are shown to employ fewer social workers, psychologists, and counselors than public schools. As for English learners, roughly half of all traditional charter schools, who are responsible for educating half of Philadelphia’s English learning students, are non-compliant in at least one aspect of the federal standards for EL programs in schools. For charters schools that are compliant, 31% of them do not enroll ANY English learning students. The study also shows that Philadelphia charters are creating learning environments that are more economically and racially segregated than district schools.

Take Action Now

Considering that charter schools are independently managed, parents and surrounding community members are often left without a voice to create change at their specific charter school. Fortunately, the Philadelphia School District Board of Education holds considerable power in regard to critically evaluating disparities in access and education gains. Each year, the Philadelphia School District Board of Education evaluates charter schools on their performance and accessibility through a variety of different frameworks. In theory, a school could fail to meet EL, special education, and enrollment categories, and still be eligible for renewal.

To create change, community members are encouraged to attend meetings, read through meeting agendas, and voice concerns at Action Meetings. Speakers must complete a speaker request form on the PSD website. If community members are uncomfortable with speaking, they can instead submit a written testimony through the PSD contact information given below. A schedule with agendas of past and upcoming meetings is available in the resources listed below.

Upcoming Action Meetings:  September 17, October 22, November 19, December 10

Board Contact Information:

Phone: (215) 400-4010

General Email:

Committees Email:


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Pivedite Team


  1. James Varisano on August 11, 2020 at 10:02 pm

    Great article, surprised that charter schools do not out perform public schools like I have been told, also interesting that Charter Schools seem to be able to get by without offering same services that public schools do??

    • Pivedite Team on August 12, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      Hi James,

      Thank you so much for your comments.

      While this article does point out some arguments against charter schools, we at Pivedite wouldn’t necessarily say that all charter schools are bad and should be done away with. The public education system in Philadelphia and around the country certainly has a lot of problems. At the end of day, it really comes down to trying to find solutions that work for the majority of students, no matter what city or community they live in.

      Pivedite Team

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