It’s been more than three years since the Philadelphia Board of Education last approved a new public charter school. With no end to the freeze in sight, what amounts to a de facto ban on new public charter schools is causing headaches for tens of thousands of families that are waiting for a spot as demand for seats grows.

In Philadelphia, there are fewer than 120,000 students enrolled in traditional public schools. Enrollment has declined by about 10,000 students since the outset of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, public charter schools have seen a roughly 25 percent increase in enrollment since 2014, according to Lenny McAllister, Chief Executive Officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. The School District of Philadelphia says there are now an estimated 70,000 students who have taken advantage of school choice to attend one of 85 brick-and-mortar charter schools in the city. 

But the waitlist for families to enroll in public charters continues to grow. With no increase in the supply of seats, a greater number of students who apply before the Jan. 24, 2022, deadline will never gain a spot in their school of choice.

The last charter school to open in Philadelphia was Hebrew Public, a bilingual Hebrew and English elementary school that received approval in May 2018 from the then state-run School Reform Commission. Weeks later, responsibility for managing Philadelphia’s schools transitioned from a state-run school board to local control after 16 years of state control, with blessings from the administration of Governor Tom Wolf, according to WHYY.

In its current makeup, the Philadelphia School Board has not approved applications to open any new charter schools. When it unanimously rejected five new schools at a meeting this past March, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported member Mallory Fix Lopez said all five applications had “glaring holes.”

“They thought that was the soft spot”

But public charter school advocates are not convinced that every single charter application in recent years has had such fatal flaws. David Hardy, co-founder of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia charter school, says it’s the politics surrounding public charters that’s changed.

Along with co-founder Janine Yass, Hardy created the single-sex school in West Philadelphia for the benefit of underserved boys. It opened in 2007 with the goal of improving college enrollment from graduating African-American high school students. 

Boys’ Latin now boasts that 98 percent of its students have been accepted to college. This is far above the 76 percent overall graduation rate in the city in 2020, according to a report from the School District of Philadelphia, which includes both traditional public school and public charter school students.

Hardy told Broad + Liberty that Boys’ Latin had support from the School Board. But before the school opened its doors in 2007, it had to overcome challenges from legal groups. At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union and Women’s Law Project raised complaints of the school only serving boys.

“There is no justification for offering kids different opportunities based on their gender,” said ACLU Attorney Mary Catherine Roper, according to UpNorthLive.

For Hardy, the outrage over gender discrimination was a veiled excuse.

“They thought that was the soft spot,” Hardy recalled to Broad + Liberty. He says the core issue was that these interest groups didn’t want a new charter school.

Back in 2006, Hardy noted Philadelphia already had fourteen single-sex public charter schools, equally split between boys and girls. Philly Magazine ranked all fourteen among the top 30 best-performing high schools in the city.

“That’s the normal playbook,” said Hardy. “They don’t come out against it being a charter school, they approach you for some other reason. But the opposition is there nevertheless.”

No friends to school choice

Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, believes the shift started in 2014 with Governor Tom Wolf’s winning bid for election.

“The Wolf Administration has not been a friend to school choice,” McAllister told Broad + Liberty. He pointed to special interest groups and unions, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association, supporting Wolf’s successful bid to unseat sitting Republican governor Tom Corbett.

The PSEA, which represents more than 180,000 teachers and other education professionals, is the largest union for public employees in the state. It, along with other Pennsylvania education unions, has donated millions to Wolf since 2013, according to a report from the Commonwealth Foundation

In Philadelphia, local teachers’ unions have made similar, though smaller contributions to Mayor Jim Kenney’s political career. The mayor was a major advocate for dissolving the School Reform Commission and restoring local control for the district.

Among others, a PAC for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers donated over $10,000 to Kenney, according to the Inquirer. The PFT and the state-run SRC clashed several times as the commission unanimously voted to refuse renewal of the city’s teachers’ contract. 

“[Kenney’s] years of consistent support for traditional public schools and educators, and his vision for a better Philadelphia for every child make him the clear choice to be the next mayor of Philadelphia,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan in a statement endorsing Kenney’s campaign over opponents such as school-choice advocate State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia). During their mayoral primary, Kenney “lashed out” at Williams’ attempts at “boosting the number of charter schools in the city,” criticizing Williams for accepting donations from the pro-charter Philadelphia School Partnership. 

The PFT PAC also made a larger contribution to Councilwoman Helen Gym in 2015, who has also advocated for traditional schooling. Philly Magazine reported that this $23,000 donation earned the federation a $1,500 fine from the city Ethics Board for being an excess “pass-through” donation.

READ MORE — Philly School District says it’s not tracking failing students

Not coincidentally, state union interests also favor traditional public schools and strongly oppose charters. A PSEA report from 2000 reflected the union’s desire to unionize charter school employees, but also alleged that charter schools were “draining funds from the regular public schools,” a frequent barb of charter school critics.

Governor Wolf has repeatedly made similar claims using wording similar to “draining funds.” He also endorsed several bills from Pa. Democrats in the state legislature to slash funding for charters, including House Bill 272.

“When the charter school law was drafted, the intent was to bolster our education system,” said Wolf earlier this year. “Instead, that outdated law has become, in some cases, no more than a license for draining funds from traditional schools while providing a poor education to students.”

McAllister accused Wolf of “picking sides” in the education debate. He said that while Wolf targeted underperforming charter schools, the governor had far less criticism for failing public schools.

“Governor Wolf has made it a point to pick winners and losers in education,” said McAllister.

Local control favors traditional public schools

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has also stood against charter schools. During his reelection campaign, in a May 2019 primary mayoral debate, the mayor said the city should have “fewer” public charters.

The mayor is responsible for nominating candidates for the nine-member Philadelphia Board of Education. In December 2020, Kenney nominated three Philadelphia School District graduates to fill vacancies.

Attorney Brian Leinhauser, of MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser, agrees the growing influence of unions and public interests are driving Philadelphia’s de facto ban on charters. Leinhauser told Broad + Liberty the positions from these special interests often contradict their mission statements.

“The communities served best by education choice are kids who live in underperforming districts. Most of those kids are minority kids,” said Leinhauser, who has worked to advance charter school applications in Pennsylvania. “And yet, the ACLU thinks charter schools are bad.”

Lenny McAllister adds that public charter schools disproportionately serve poor communities. Roughly two-thirds of students at public charters are eligible for free or reduced lunches regardless of ethnic background.

Like other charter advocates, McAllister sees school choice as a major civil rights issue. 

McAllister’s argument is based on the pursuit of happiness and right to self-determination. “How do you determine happiness? How do you pursue happiness? If you can’t do that in education, you’re limited in any other aspect of your life.”

For McAllister, public charters are “the only guarantee of school choice for any child across America.” While private schools have entrance exams and often hefty price tags, entrance to public charters hinges on a lottery system.

As for overcoming the opposition to charters, Leinhauser sees large hurdles. The question is how to fund districts without taking money away from charters.

“It would require a dramatic shift in thinking away from how education works in Pennsylvania,” Leinhauser said. “There’s 500 school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That’s 500 superintendent salaries, all six figures.”

Leinhauser pointed to other states larger than Pennsylvania that organize schools at the county level. He argued that bigger school districts, and fewer of them, would amount to fewer administrative positions.

But David Hardy of Boys’ Latin says the issue of the city school board’s refusal to expand charter schools is more fundamental.

“They don’t want to approve any charter schools because the charter schools perform better than they do.”

Rick Rickman is a reporter for Broad + Liberty. @RRickman20

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