Testimony of The Education Law Center Delivered by Raynelle Staley to the Board of Education, February 28, 2019

Earlier today, the Education Law Center released a report examining equity in the charter sector that we prepared at the request of the Student Achievement and Support Committee. The report focuses on “traditional charter schools” like those that you are voting on today – brick-and- mortar schools that were authorized by predecessors to this board as new citywide schools pursuant to Section 1717-A of Charter School Law. Based on data from traditional charter schools themselves as reported by the Charter School Office, PDE, and other public sources, we found systemic evidence of the types of civil rights issues we regularly hear about through our HelpLine – evidence that historically marginalized student groups, such as students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color, are not being equitably served by traditional charter schools.

The inequities come in many forms, and one of the most significant is the disproportionate enrollment of more advantaged students in charters relative to district schools. Among our key findings are:

  1. The population of economically disadvantaged students is 14 percentage points lower in the traditional charter sector (56%) vs. the district sector (70%).
  2. The percentage of English learners in District schools (11%) is nearly three times higher than in traditional charters (4%). 31% of all traditional charters have no English learners at all.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Many of these demographic differences are a result of charter school practices within this board’s authority to oversee. However, as we found in our report, a charter could violate federal and state requirements for English learners, special education, and non-discriminatory enrollment and still be eligible for renewal under the District’s existing Charter School Performance Framework. Such a result is not in line with the Charter School Law and existing precedent.

For all of its limitations – and we recognize there are many, the Charter School Law gives local school boards broad authority to ensure “that requirements for … civil rights and student health and safety are being met.”1 It empowers the Board to deny charters that fail to demonstrate the ability to meet the educational needs of all students2 and to revoke charters3 in the face of violations of civil rights4 and other fundamental laws.5

We therefore urge you to:

  1. Look beyond academic and financial performance and also focus on issues of equity, when authorizing and renewing charter schools. Otherwise you unwittingly incentivize charters to continue to underserve students with the greatest educational needs.
  2. Change the performance framework used to evaluate charters so that equity issues are prioritized. This may require evaluating student equity factors under their own domain and expanding the standards and evidence that the Charter School Office reviews.
  3. Expand the Charter School Office’s capacity to provide effective oversight and identify unwritten discriminatory practices. The office should be adequately resourced to be recognized as a resource for parent complaints and to conduct annual site visits, mystery testing, and frequent lottery monitoring, among other responsibilities.

We look forward to working with the Board, the Charter School Office, and the rest of the District administration to catalyze charter school accountability and improve the experience of all students in Philadelphia. And we hope your vote today is worthy of the tremendous public trust that Philadelphians have placed in you as charter authorizers to act with the best interest of their children in mind. Thank you.

Respectfully submitted,

Reynelle Brown Staley, Esq. Policy Director
Education Law Center

1 24 Pa. C.S. § 17-1728-A(a).
2 Appeal of Denial of Charter for City College Prep Charter Sch., CAB 2006-01, at 8-9 (Pa. St. Charter Sch. App. Bd. Aug. 29, 2006) (upholding denial of charter school application for a college-preparatory school that failed to demonstrate plans to meet the needs of students who were not intellectually capable of pursuing postsecondary education, students who did not intend to pursue post-secondary education, or students with mental or physical disabilities, noting that there was “ample evidence in the record to show that the actual operation of the school will result in discrimination”); Appeal of Voyager Charter Sch. of Pa., Inc. t/a Voyager Charter Sch., CAB 2005-09, at 10-11 (Pa. St. Charter Sch. App. Bd. June 8, 2006) (finding that applicant whose curriculum specifically for mentally gifted with no intention to accommodate other students could not provide a comprehensive learning experience to those students, and thus, impermissibly proposed to discriminate in its operation).
3 Pocono Mountain Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Dep’t of Educ., 151 A.3d 129, 137 (Pa. 2016) (citing to 24 Pa. C.S. § 17-1729- A(a)(3)); see also id. at 149 (Dougherty, J., dissenting) (“Section 1728–A(a) places upon the chartering school district an obligation to monitor a charter school . . . The CSL empowers and thus requires a chartering school district to be diligent in fulfilling its obligations. . .”).
4 24 Pa. C.S. § 17-1729-A(a)(5).
5 Appeal from the revocation/non-renewal of charter of Renaissance Charter Sch., CAB No. 2008-07, at n.3 (Pa. St. Charter Sch. App. Bd. Apr. 14, 2008); see also Renewal Application of Lincoln Charter Sch., CAB No. 2005-3 (Pa. St. Charter Sch. App. Bd. Aug. 19, 2005) (violation of Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act – which is a standard under the OCV Domain – was not enough to single-handedly constitute a “material” breach).