This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
"School choice" is a hot educational topic and also a phrase with various meanings.
On one level, choice is the commonsense concept of offering educational options – families should not be trapped in a neighborhood school that is not meeting their needs.
On another level "school choice" is a controversial political agenda – a code word for school vouchers or other measures which offer government funding to help families pay for tuition at private or church-run schools.
In between these levels are a lot of variations on the theme of school choice, which is the focus of this issue of the Notebook.
In Philadelphia, the number of school choices available to students is definitely on the rise. But whether more students now are able to access quality educational options is not so clear.
The odds of getting admitted to several popular Philadelphia public schools are as poor as the odds at an Ivy League college.
The federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) education law is rapidly forcing school systems to provide choice in many schools with low test scores. But few public or charter schools here have met the performance targets that would allow them to be offered as a school to be chosen.
Nationally, the scarcity of public school choices is being cited increasingly aggressively by the Bush administration to promote proposals for vouchers.
"By shielding schools from market forces, we are preserving a status quo," said U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige in a September 11 statement. "We need to do something bold to shake up the system."
But this shakeup is meeting resistance. "The very people who wage relentless war against the public schools wave vouchers under the noses of the poor, knowing full well that private schools cannot possibly meet the needs of the vast bulk of Black children," said the publishers of Black Commentator, in the September 11 issue of that online weekly.
A history of school choice
Since a desegregation plan was put in place in Philadelphia in the 1970s, the school system here has prioritized offering a variety of school options for students at every level of the system – including busing to out-of neighborhood elementary schools through the voluntary desegregation program, special admission and alternative middle schools, and dozens of different high school options.
But with the proliferation of new charter schools and other recent reforms in Philadelphia, the complex array of public school options has become even more elaborate and bewildering for parents.
In part this is because the question of who runs the school down the street is no longer easy to answer.
On top of Philadelphia’s 48 charter schools, 44 schools in Philadelphia have been turned over to six outside educational managers – Edison, Victory, Universal, Foundations, Temple, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The "diverse provider" school management model implemented by the School Reform Commission in 2002 started from the premise that the School District should employ a variety of management approaches in different schools – including restructuring, conversion to charters, private management, or university partnership.
The growing collection of charter schools here now serves 21,000 students. Each school has its own application process and deadlines.
Two channels for choice
Every fall, the School District’s Office of Student Placement operates a process in which students can apply for a transfer out of their neighborhood school and eighth graders select a high school. Decisions come in the spring. But to complicate things further, NCLB has forced the District to create an additional school choice process – conducted months after the traditional student placement deadline.
The law currently gives families at 196 Philadelphia schools the right to request a transfer out of their school because test scores fell below state standards for two or more consecutive years. Students can also request transfers out of 27 schools identified as persistently dangerous.
Not many parents have taken advantage of the "No Child Left Behind school choice" process yet. According to the School District’s director of the Office of Student Placement LeTretta Jones, parents are still "attuned" primarily to the regular transfer process in the fall.
This spring, there were fewer than 1,900 applications from the 137,000 families that were notified that their child’s school had not met the standard under NCLB. About 1,000 students were provided transfer slots.
In contrast, there were 77,000 transfer applications in last fall’s student placement process. Of those, 12,000 were approved.
The vast majority of families request transfers to the same few schools that have a positive citywide reputation, and so most of them are rejected for lack of space.
Of the 15 most sought-after schools in the system, only two – Conwell and AMY at James Martin – accepted as many as 25 percent of their applicants in 2002 (see Student placement office).
Nine of the most sought-after elementary schools – Bache-Martin, Greenfield, Henry, J.S. Jenks, McCall, Meredith, MYA, Overbrook Education Center, and Shawmont – turned down over 90 percent of their 2002 applicants – each rejecting hundreds of prospective students.
School District data on the high school application process show that students of color in Philadelphia have fared significantly worse than White students in exercising choice. African American and Latino students have been accepted at much lower rates than Whites both at special admissions schools like Central and Girls and at so-called "criteria-based" programs, many of which are academies at neighborhood high schools.
This fall, the District’s Office of High Schools has revamped and standardized the admissions policy for its criteria-based high school programs in an attempt to address equity concerns.
Creating more strong high school options has been another priority of the high school office. Efforts are underway to bolster programs at existing schools, to convert several middle schools to high schools, and to create new high schools in the city.
‘Choice’ as a political agenda
Nationally, President Bush and other proponents of expanded school choice see it as a lever to force failing schools to improve or die through a competitive process. That is the intent of the school choice provision and other sanctions on low-scoring schools in NCLB.
However, critics of this approach say that any competitive school choice process is going to have losers as well as winners, and that the focus of federal, state and local education officials needs to be on shoring up the capacity of struggling schools – rather than simply supporting the most assertive families in getting out.
Under the terms of NCLB, 400 Pennsylvania schools have been told that they are "needing improvement" and that parents must have a choice of alternatives. About half of those schools are in Philadelphia.
But even though choices within the city are limited, public schools in the Philadelphia suburbs are not among the choices offered. The state does not mandate or strongly encourage interdistrict choice.
No vouchers in PA
Public school vouchers are not on the immediate agenda in Pennsylvania because Governor Rendell is an opponent of the approach, which was repeatedly and unsuccessfully proposed by former Governor Tom Ridge.
Nationally, publicly funded school voucher programs are operating only in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida. However, Congressional support is building for a federally funded voucher plan for the District of Columbia that is advocated by the President. Vouchers of up to $7,500 would be offered to low-income D.C. families, an amount somewhat lower than typical private school tuition in the city.
One criticism of the plan is that the schools in voucher programs are not accountable to parents and taxpayers.
"Accountability is supposed to be the cornerstone of NCLB and yet the Bush administration’s voucher proposal for D.C. does not have a provision for holding private schools to the same standards that public schools must meet," commented Ralph Neas of People for the American Way in a statement on the plan.
Studies of existing voucher programs present contradictory results on whether these plans are effective at improving student achievement.