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Pew Report: Options are growing, but parents want still more

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Those of us who have been following the education world in Philadelphia for any length of time know that it has changed drastically just in the past decade. Catholic schools are on the wane. Charter schools are on the rise. And the public school system itself has undergone huge upheavals — a state takeover, the advent of private management in some low-performing schools, the creation of dozens of additional high schools under Paul Vallas.

All these changes have had one common result: parents have to pay more attention in a system that has become much more complicated, especially at the middle and high school level. Even if they do not plan to enroll their child in a Catholic or other private school, they can no longer simply assume that their child will be assigned to the public school nearest to their home.

With the explosive growth of charter schools, not to mention choice within the School District itself, all parents now have an option, even if they can’t afford tuition. But parents can’t just choose a charter school and enroll. They must enter a lottery, and the child may or may not get picked, especially at the more popular charters. So they need a Plan B and probably a Plan C.

Parents are both heartened and daunted by this new responsibility, according to a report out this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative. The report polled 802 parents, half with children in District schools, a quarter from charters, and a quarter from the Catholic system.

Most of the results are not surprising, but a few things struck me as interesting. While more than nine in ten parents in both charter and Catholic schools rated their child’s school as "good" or "excellent," 71 percent of those with children in District schools said the same — a number that is higher than I would have expected. At the same time only 40 percent of District parents said they thought the system as a whole was doing a good job, and 62 percent said they had considered private or charter schools.

Also, Black District parents are more critical of the system than White parents. At first glance that might seem counterintuitive, but of course it makes perfect sense: most White students in the District are in special admission schools or in schools in more upscale neighborhoods. (The report says 41 percent of the White high school students are in schools with admissions criteria.) Of course, the White population in the District has been steadily dwindling and is now down to about 13 percent; most White families left the system a long time ago.

The poll also revealed that regardless of what kind of school their child attends, parents value safety and discipline above all else, more than academics. Only 40 percent of District parents felt the District was doing a "good" or "excellent" job in keeping order and discipline in the classroom. More — 50 percent of District parents — gave the District high marks for giving students "a solid background in reading and math." (Charter and Catholic school parents rated District schools even lower on both measures.)

In follow-up focus groups, the report said, "parents rarely mentioned academics unless prompted to do so." At the same time, parents of all income levels have high aspirations for their children. Among parents with incomes below $40,000, 82 percent said they wanted their children to get a college or graduate degree. That compares to 92 percent of parents with incomes above $92,000.

While choice is the watchword now for just about all parents in the city, nearly half — 42 percent — said it is somewhat or very hard to get enough information about their choices. Of course, charter schools each have their own procedure. Although the report did not get into this in detail, the District’s own high schools admissions process is also a maze, especially for low-income parents. It does quote an African American parent from Germantown expressing her skepticism that the District’s admission process is purely a matter of merit. "If you live in a poor area, I don’t care what your grades are, you’re not going to top schools," this woman said.

A recent Research for Action report on 9th grade admissions found race and class inequities. And systemwide, a majority of students who try for other, more selective schools still end up back at their neighborhood high school.

Earlier this year, when top District officials floated a new "point" system for the special admission schools that took neighborhood and income levels of applicants into account, it caused a firestorm and the proposal was hastily withdrawn.

Regardless of where they send their own children, a majority of parents, 62 percent, think that the expansion of charter schools is a good thing.

The report also noted the different attitudes among parents, compared to those of educators and public officials. "Many public officials and educators still think in terms of systems, isolated from one another. Increasingly, though, parents tend to think in terms of individual schools….many parents don’t care much about labels."

Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative, and myself will be discussing the report Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on WHYY’s Radio Times.

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