For the last several years, I've held a job at a homeless services agency with a somewhat unusual responsibility: I've helped parents navigate the charter school system.
After a few years, I can't help but feel conflicted about it.
On the one hand, the charter system is an enormous drain on the traditional District system. On the other hand, having the choice to send children to high-quality charter schools is an incredible opportunity for individual families.
But even putting aside the larger question of whether it's fair for the charter system to prosper at the District's expense, there's the question of equity. Do very low-income students have the same access to charters as better-off students? In my experience, the answer is no, and for a variety of reasons – but one in particular has rarely been discussed.
Several weeks ago, a client expressed interest in sending, when she's old enough, her now-3-year-old daughter to a local charter school only a couple of miles from where they expect to move when they leave our facility.
“You definitely should try to get her in the lottery,” I said. “Because there's no question, it's better than the neighborhood school.”
“They'd give her transportation?” she asked.
“Actually, no,” I explained. “Not for kindergarten.”
“Well, then she's not going,” she said.
There was not much more I could say. I encouraged her to apply anyway, because there was always a chance she could work something out. But I knew she would most likely be on her own to pay for transportation. And to transport herself and her daughter to this charter school on SEPTA back and forth would be an enormous burden for her. It would, by my estimates, cost more than a $1,000 a year, probably more than 10 percent of her entire yearly income.
This aspect of the charter school debate is too often overlooked. Although there has been much excellent reporting on deliberate “skimming” or “creaming” by charter schools, more mundane structural issues arguably go further in explaining why significantly fewer low-income children enroll in charter schools than in traditional District schools.
One of these is the kindergarten transportation issue. The District provides transportation for elementary students living 1.5 miles or more from their school, in the form of a school bus or a SEPTA pass, for 1st graders and up – but not for kindergartners. According to the School District, this is simply because Pennsylvania state law does not mandate attendance during kindergarten.
Lack of transportation during kindergarten doesn’t just mean that children are blocked from charter schools for that one year. If a child isn't in a charter elementary school by kindergarten, it's usually hard to get in at all. Once a child hits 1st grade and is provided free transportation, far fewer slots are available, usually just a handful, if any. The best schools naturally have the highest retention, so the number of open slots often approaches zero in the higher grades.
In other words, to have the best shot at getting into the city’s best charter schools, unless parents are somehow able to secure alternate means of transportation, they have to pay an indirect tax of more than $1,000 for transportation costs during kindergarten. For the poorest parents, this cost is all but prohibitive.
As Alphonso Evans, CEO and principal at the high-performing and high-retaining Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, told me, lack of transportation during kindergarten “absolutely limits the number of low-income parents who are able to enroll their children in a school that would be beneficial to them.”
Southwest Leadership, he said, has 50 slots open for kindergarten, perhaps a few for 1st grade, and often none in the higher grades. For all but a few students, kindergarten is the only viable chance to apply to the school.
“We have a ton of parents who beg with us to allow their kindergartners on the bus.” he said, but District policy won't allow it.
The scale of this transportation problem would be difficult to detect using available statistics. The Education Law Center released a report last year finding that significantly fewer students who are enrolled in charter schools receive free or reduced-price school lunch than in traditional District schools – about 70 percent in charters, but about 80 percent in District schools. Free or reduced-price school lunch is a common indicator of poverty, but I would argue that this frequently cited statistic (along with the designation of “economically disadvantaged” that largely derives from it) obscures an even greater concentration of students in traditional neighborhood schools living in deep poverty.
After all, a family of three living in deep poverty earns $10,000 a year or less, as opposed to about $26,000 for a family of three at the threshold for qualifying for free lunch, or about $37,000 for reduced lunch. Needless to say, there's a big difference between earning $10,000 and $37,000 a year.
It's the difference, usually, between being disconnected from the larger economy and participating in it as part of the working class or lower-middle class. It's the difference, much of the time, between depending on public transportation and owning a car.
It's the difference in many, if not most, cases between being able to send your child to the debt-ridden District system and the solvent charter system it sustains.
This is an especially important issue for Philadelphia. The most recent census found that Philadelphia has the largest deep poverty rate of any big city in the country, with more than 12 percent of the population living in deep poverty. This includes 60,000 children, and virtually all of the families in our program.
Is it really fair that these families need to spend 10 percent of one year's income just to send their children to a school system that isn't broke?