Why Charter Schools Exist Mainly Among Urban Poor

by Christopher Paslay

Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, charter schools in Pennsylvania are virtually nonexistent.  One reason is that socioeconomically disadvantaged children and their families are easier to manipulate.      

Here are some basic facts about charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania.  In 2011, only 54.7 percent made AYP under the No Child Left Behind Law.  Stanford University’s CREDO report, which examined the performance of Pennsylvania charter schools from 2007 to 2010, concluded:

“Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools. . . . Performance at cyber charter schools was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math. . . . Charter schools of all ages in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools, and charter school students grow at lower rates compared to their traditional public school peers in their first 3 years in charter schools, although the gap shrinks considerably in math and disappears entirely in reading by the third year of attendance.”

There are 3,096 public schools in Pennsylvania, yet only 142 of them—one half of one percent—are charters.  Of these 142 charters, 80 of them (56 percent) are in Philadelphia, another 15 are in the Pittsburgh/Allegheny area, and the remaining 47 are sparsely scattered throughout the rest of the state.  Outside of poor urban areas, charter schools are practically nonexistent.             

If charters are the new fix for “failing” public schools, why haven’t they caught on in the suburbs?  Why haven’t they caught on in rural areas or mountain regions?  The answer is because charters are not better than traditional public schools, and there are heaps of data to prove this.  Most families outside of urban areas understand this reality, which is why charters and their enterprising operators have been unable to successfully set-up shop there.  Suburbanites don’t want charters, they don’t want business people with limited educational experience messing with their children and controlling their school resources (the head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority recently proposed opening a charter, if you can believe that).  Why, then, are charters so widely accepted in Philadelphia?        

One reason might be that 80.6 percent of families of public school children in Philadelphia are economically disadvantaged, and they are easier to take advantage of.  Yes, they are being taken advantage of, and here’s how. 

First, charters falsely advertise they are superior academically, despite all the research showing otherwise.  Many urban poor are not in a position to access research on charter school performance, so they simply believe what they hear or are told; the propagandistic film Waiting for Superman is a case in point.  In short, the urban poor are being misled.    

Second, charter schools discriminate and play by their own rules.  It is a documented fact that charter schools fail to serve the neediest population of children.  KIPP charters (Knowledge Is Power Program) are a prime example.  Because KIPP schools have extended school days and hold classes on weekends, the student turnover rate is extremely high for Black males—over 40 percent dropout between grades 6 – 8.  As a result, these students are sent back to neighborhood schools.  In addition, KIPP is criticized for not serving more English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Although there’s yet to be any noteworthy litigation in Pennsylvania against charter operators (the key word is yet), parents of school children in Louisiana have filed a class-action lawsuit against the New Orleans school system, arguing that their charters exclude special-needs students.  The Miami Herald recently wrote a series titled “Cashing In on Kids” which highlighted the fact that South Florida charter operators are getting rich on “school choice” by admitting very few special needs children and minorities into their schools.  This discrimination is widespread and very real.  I’ve personally met numerous parents whose children are on waiting lists to get into a charter—or have been removed from a charter—because they couldn’t pass the muster.                 

Third, charters take money away from struggling neighborhood schools.  Interestingly, it’s not academics that attracts many urban parents to charter schools.  The lure of charters seems to be the fact that many are cleaner, safer, and smaller than big, decaying neighborhood schools.  This is true in some cases, but there’s a reason: charters weed out dysfunctional children and their struggling families, and siphon money away from traditional neighborhood schools that could be used for upgrade and repair.

This is a clear civil rights violation, and sets in motion a cycle of 21st century school segregation.  As time goes on, as charters continue to expand, there will be more and more separation between charters and traditional schools, until the neediest 30 – 40 percent (made up of primarily English Language Learners, the disabled, and those children with social, emotional, and behavioral disorders) are left completely behind.  In other words, despite the big promises, charters by their very nature will never help a large population of the urban poor.                           

And many socioeconomically disadvantaged parents don’t understand this.  They view clean, neat, nifty new charters as a lottery ticket, and jump at it.  Little do they know that there’s a good chance that their child won’t get into that school, that their son or daughter will be left behind in the forgotten neighborhood school, which has been further weaken by the existence of the charter. Sure, those lucky enough to get into a charter may have a cleaner, safer, more appropriate learning environment, but this is only achieved at the expense of the neediest 30 – 40 percent of children plagued with disorders who are weeded out and left behind.  This might be acceptable in a private school using private funds, but it’s unconstitutional when it’s being done with public tax dollars.   

If only urban parents could see that making a commitment to their neighborhood school—like parents do in most other parts of the state—would be a better solution in the long run.  If only they could team up with elected officials to generate the resources needed to complete building renovations and repairs, upgrade materials, and invest in technology.  If only they could convince educational policy makers to revamp curriculum to make it more individualized and authentic, and expand alternative schools and programs to remediate troubled youth.  If only they could convince local leaders to invest in families and communities in order to create a culture of learning available to all children within the bounds of a neighborhood, instead of running away.                             

Although charters in Pennsylvania don’t outperform traditional neighborhood schools academically, they do turn a large profit.  Privatization of public schools (and tax dollars) is a big business, and unlike the more advantaged populations of Pennsylvania, the urban poor are prime real estate.

4 thoughts on “Why Charter Schools Exist Mainly Among Urban Poor

  1. Charter schools use the exact same curriculum materials that the public schools use so it is no surprise their results are the same.

    I have tutored students from a local city charter and they had Everyday Math, same as Philly and used Balanced Literacy packages, same at Philly. Both of these programs have huge gaping holes in them especially for the disadvantaged student which most schools fail miserable to teach, even in the suburbs.

    Until we convince educators to examine the instruction, things will remain the same no matter what kind of school the children are sitting in. You can make cosmetic changes, have fewer kids in a class, wear uniforms, sign pledges but when it comes to teaching a child to read you need instruction most schools, public and charter, currently are not using. And all this fuss about the quality of teachers being the problem, again a smoke screen for the real problem, flawed instruction. Ordinary teachers can teach the same as the so called superior teacher if all of them are using good research based instruction.

    I believe the big factor that drives parents to charters in the city is the that the parents perceive these schools to be safer. Parents select Catholic schools for the same reason. Parents want their child to be surrounded by kids who they feel are “safe.” Parents in the suburbs don’t have this worry, because their local public schools are full of children they perceive to be safe so they don’t seek out charters or demand them to be built. The schools are in neighbors they perceive to be safe. Most suburban elementary schools have huge green spaces, playground equipment, pretty buildings, plenty of supplies, they look really really nice. They have a ton of support staff, full time reading teachers and nurses which Philly no longer has. My local high school in West Chester looks like a fancy resort with tennis courts, football fields with astro turf, and soccer fields. Suburban parents like their public schools because they feel they are safe and they have plenty of nice things in them.

    However I have tutored plenty of students from the suburban schools and they use the exact same curriculum that the School District of Phila uses. Do parents care about this, no. Parents want their kids to be safe. That is number one. These schools just happen to have enough kids who can learn with the flawed instruction schools so their test score numbers look good. However if you look at individual subgroups you will see they also fail to educate disadvantaged and learning disabled students the same as Philly and the same as the charters.

    Safety however trumps everything else and the main problem, curriculum, is not even on the radar screen. All schools use the same materials produced by the same large book companies. They might make minor changes but the basic teaching is the same.

    DId you see the story about Penn Alexander, the public school is West Philly, that draws lines of parents on the kindergarten register day who are willing to camp out overnight? What does that school have that all the other Philly schools do not have- a perceived notion that somehow that school is safer and better. They have more money for extras from Penn, but again, the exact same curriculum materials used by every single teacher in every other Philly public school. The basic instruction, the one thing that can really make a difference, is the same. .



  2. As a former charter school teacher in Philadelphia, I agree with most of the points made in the article and the subsequent comment. However, in response to Kathy, safety is important, but schools exist to educate children. When students are engaged and in a supportive environment with strong school culture, violence decreases. Education is and should be the most important aspect of our school system. If the schools are not delivering appropriate academic results, they should be shut down.

    I also disagree that charter schools are “taking money away” from public schools. Charter schools are public schools and serve children that would otherwise attend the public school. Especially in Phialdelphia, they also lead to smaller class sizes in public schools. Educators should stop focusing on what charter schools are taking from traditional public schools and instead look at the few benefits they provide.

    • No!! It is a fact. Public schools in the suburbs are in a tax bracket that gives them an educational advantage. Charter schools are not the answer. We have great public schools that have a supportive environment. I believe we need to focus on how to provide the up grades in techology and building up grades to give urban students the same advantages surban students have and you will see the results.

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