September 7, 2023

Lisa Haver: More than Half of Philadelphia’s Charter Schools Are Under-Enrolled

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Choicers in Pennsylvania have been lobbying hard for a new voucher program. But as Lisa Haver points out, some of their arguments don’t add up.

School choice proponents claim that public school students are “trapped” in failing schools, trying in vain to find an alternative.  A recent Sunday Inquirer editorial, written by wealthy suburban backers of more privatization of the city’s schools, painted public schools as “cages” from which children could not escape.  The only solution, they claim, is to take funding for public schools and give it to individuals to use as tuition to attend private schools. Their version of school choice does not acknowledge that the choice is not the families’ but the schools’–who can reject any applicant without explanation and can discriminate against students on the basis of sexual identity.  Most voucher money would go to students already attending religious and exclusive private schools.  Education policy expert Josh Cowen  writes that a decade of research indicates that  vouchers actually lower academic achievement. 

What those lobbying for more voucher programs can’t explain is why more families don’t leave the district schools, which they paint with a broad brush as “failing”, and attend any of the district’s 83 charter schools. They refer to the elusive “charter waiting list” of 25, 000 students (inexplicably down from their previous list of 40,000)   without  producing the list or offering proof of any kind of its existence.  The truth is that there is no charter waiting list for the simple reason that most of the city’s charter schools are under-enrolled.

Current data shows that 58 of the district’s 83 charter schools–67%–are under their authorized enrollment. Fifteen charter schools are between 20% and 40% under-enrolled. Two schools are below 50% of their authorized enrollment.  Families living in any part of the city could choose from among the 65 charters with citywide admission. Renaissance schools are nominally neighborhood schools, but many have a large percentage from outside their official catchment areas.

Obviously, Philadelphia’s schoolchildren are not trapped in district schools. Parents have fought to stop the hostile takeover of their schools by charter companies, and many continue to choose district public schools over charters. In addition, the low percentage of in-catchment enrollment at Renaissance charters shows that parents will travel farther rather than attend a charter they find to be substandard.

Read the full piece here. 

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