Education Law Center of Pennsylvania

Safeguarding Educational Equity: Protecting Philadelphia Students’ Civil Rights Through Charter Oversight

Posted on April 16, 2019

Executive Summary

As public schools, district and charter schools share in the legal responsibility to educate all school-aged children. The law requires charter schools to provide equitable access and inclusive opportunities for all students. It similarly requires charter authorizers to ensure equity and protect students’ civil rights when exercising their authority over charter school applicants and operators.

The oversight of an effective charter authorizer matters in a district like Philadelphia. The decision to grant a new charter or renew an existing one is always significant because it signals to parents and the community at large that the school is worthy of public trust. In addition, such oversight is a matter of fiscal responsibility, as charter school spending in Philadelphia has increased as a percentage of the total district budget from 13% in 2008 to 31% in 2018.

Responsible charter authorizing is particularly critical in Pennsylvania, where the law vests responsibility for brick-and-mortar charter authorization in the same local school board that governs the community’s district-run public schools. The significance of the local school board’s role as charter authorizer is amplified in Philadelphia by the district’s sizable charter school enrollment, large percentages of historically underserved student populations, and longstanding struggles in meeting student needs. This makes the new Philadelphia Board of Education’s decisions on charter applications and renewals and its actions to protect the rights of all students particularly critical.

An examination of “traditional charter schools” in Philadelphia suggests that these schools are not sharing equitably in the responsibility of educating all students. While not all Philadelphia charter schools have data or practices that raise concerns about equitable access, these schools as a whole disproportionately enroll more advantaged students. This reality gives traditional charters a significant edge in meeting the “academic success,” “financial health,” and “sustainability” measures on which they are most often evaluated. However, the conduct of these charters raises systemic concerns about the extent to which they are compliant with federal and state laws protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities, English learners, students in poverty, students of color, and other historically underserved student groups.

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