Charters seek to level educational playing field in a flawed, underfunded system

Generations of neighborhood and school segregation, combined with statewide failure to address inequalities in funding

To understand why families and students in Philadelphia choose to pursue an education through charter schools rather than School District public schools, we need to keep the students front and center.

Parents send their children to schools that provide the best opportunities for their children to grow and learn. Pennsylvania public schools face some of the most extreme racial and economic inequality in the country and rather than leveling the playing field, district public schools in low-income neighborhoods can actually stunt children’s academic growth. This is what drives families to look outside the district public school system for opportunities that will ensure their children get a quality education.

Research for Action’s 2016 analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education found that Pennsylvania state education funding to predominantly white districts is “dramatically higher” than per-student funding to districts with a higher percentage of students of color. Likewise, an Education Law Center report released this year found that our state “fails to support Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable students” through its chronic underfunding of its poorest school districts and those with the most students of color.

This isolation of low-income students and students of color has only intensified over the last 60 years. For example, students in North, Southwest, and West Philadelphia are far more likely to attend district public schools that are “intensely segregated.” This categorization denotes a school that has more than 90 percent students of color; these schools also tend to have much higher concentrations of low-income students.

The result is that district public schools in wealthier areas like Center City and Chestnut Hill are surrounded by a high concentration of resources and support that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city. Meanwhile, district public schools available to poor students of color are disproportionately underfunded, under-resourced, and ultimately unable to provide a meaningful education to many of their students.

The costs of our broken system are undeniable and unacceptable. Last year, less than two-thirds of students in the School District of Philadelphia graduated from high school. A little more than half enrolled in college, and only 1 in every 10 district public school students went on to earn a college degree.

Generations of intensifying neighborhood and school segregation, combined with statewide failure to address deep-seated inequalities in funding and access to resources, have had the effect of confining poorer, often black and Latino, families to the bottom rungs of a tiered educational system.

In the context of the unnecessary scarcity created by our state and city’s extreme funding disparities, it’s easy to point fingers at charter schools for costing the district money. But in reality, charter schools receive a smaller amount of per-student funding than district public schools — and tend to provide better results.

The district reports that it spends $700 million annually on students who elect to leave behind their failing schools to attend better-performing charter schools. What’s not mentioned is that while this figure accounts for 25 percent of the district’s $2.86 billion public education budget, the 68,000 students enrolled in charter schools account for 34 percent of the district’s student population.

This means that students who attend district public schools receive on average a $14,000 investment in their education from the district, while students who attend charter schools receive on average just $10,000. This funding inequity is replicated across the state, where students who attend charter schools receive 20 percent to 30 percent less funding than their peers in traditional neighborhood schools.

On average, brick-and-mortar charter schools perform better academically than district public schools. Despite enrolling students who often start out two to three years below grade level, requiring significant extra work to catch up, charter schools have consistently proven to get the job done. Compared to the School District of Philadelphia’s graduation rate of 65 percent, the combined graduation rate for all charter schools in the city is 76 percent.

Freire Charter School, for example, educates students who hail from communities across the city and consistently sends more than 80 percent of its graduates to college. Freire students are also five times more likely to complete a college degree than the average District public school graduate.

Low-income families who choose charter schools are trying to create an opportunity for their students to break a cycle of poverty that is reinforced by segregated neighborhoods and schools, as well as disparate funding. Rehashing the imagined “fight” between charter schools and traditional public schools is a dangerous distraction from promoting our students’ learning and well-being into adulthood.

Our city’s students learn from our city’s leaders. We cannot teach them that poor academic performance is acceptable, or that finger-pointing is any way to fix a problem. Rather, we should teach them, by example, that we can face crises together—that we can learn from one another. We should show them that only successful performance assures long-term prosperity.

The first step is acknowledging that our city’s neighborhood schools are unequal. The second is acknowledging that charter schools offer lower-income students a vital and necessary opportunity to succeed.

Kelly Davenport is executive director of Build the Future Education Collaborative. Kelly@buildthefuture.org

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