Study: Phila. parents want more school-choice options

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Snapshot of a poll of parents on how they feel about the quality of education.

Despite the explosive growth of charter schools in Philadelphia in the last decade, city parents say they still do not have enough good choices when it comes to picking a school, Pew Charitable Trusts says in a study released Tuesday.

White parents whose children attend district schools give higher marks to the system and individual schools than do African American parents. Parents younger than 30 are among the district's "most dissatisfied customers." Nearly eight out of 10 district parents under 30 say they have considered transferring their children to Catholic, charter, or private schools.

Those are just some of the findings contained in an examination of kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in the city by Pew Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative.

The report, which features a poll of 802 city parents with school-age children, found that school safety was a major concern and accounts for the largest differences in how parents view their schools.

The poll of district, charter, and Catholic school parents found that only 31 percent of district parents say their children's schools do an excellent job handling safety, compared with 67 percent for charter parents, and 73 percent for those whose children attend Catholic schools.

"There's a dramatic difference between how parents in the three systems see their schools on safety," Larry Eichel, project director of the Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, said Monday.

In the foreword to "Philadelphia's Changing Schools and What Parents Want from Them," Eichel, a former Inquirer journalist, wrote that the report focuses on parents because they face the task of navigating an often-bewildering sea of choices.

Nonetheless, educational choice has become mainstream in Philadelphia. Both Eichel and Laura Horwitz, a research associate who was one of the report's principal authors, said they were struck that 62 percent of district parents have actively considered sending their children to charter, Catholic, or private schools.

"If people are being honest with us, it gives the idea that almost everybody is thinking about this," Eichel said. "Obviously, there are some people who put their children in the nearest public school as a default situation, but not many."

The poll, described by the study as a first of its kind, was conducted from Dec. 11 through 22, in consultation with Rutgers University pollster Cliff Zukin. It has a margin of error for questions posed to all parents of a plus or minus 3.5 percent. The study also conducted focus groups with some of the polled parents.

Parents, the study found, are looking for good, safe schools for children "and are not philosophically wedded to one system or another."

With Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's plan to turn some chronically underperforming schools over to charter-school operators as part of her Imagine 2014 academic-reorganization initiative, educational options in the district will continue to proliferate.

The report, which took nearly a year to complete, is the work of Tom Ferrick Jr., a former Inquirer journalist, and Horwitz. They visited schools and interviewed charter operators, district officials, and educational leaders, including Ackerman and Bishop Joseph McFadden.

Ackerman said she could not comment on the report Monday because she had not yet read it. McFadden, whom Pope Benedict XVI named bishop of Harrisburg last week, was out of the country and could not be reached.

"Sometimes," Eichel writes in the foreword, "the most important changes in a city are the ones that happen gradually. You don't notice that they've taken place until you take a step back and compare where you are to where you've been."

Since 2000-01, school district enrollment has declined 19 percent; Catholic school enrollment has dropped 37 percent.

Enrollment in independent, taxpayer-funded charter schools jumped 170 percent, to 33,107.

Charter schools supplanted the Catholic schools in 2008-09 as the city's largest alternative to district schools.

While 60 percent of all parents surveyed rate the district as "only fair" or poor, 71 percent of parents whose children attend district schools say their individual schools are good or excellent. White district parents were more satisfied than African American parents, with 87 percent compared with 63 percent rating their child's school good or excellent.

District parents under 30 were among the least satisfied with the public school system, with 58 percent rating them fair or poor. Sixty-four percent of African American parents rated the public schools fair or poor, compared with 54 percent for white parents.

Ninety percent of charter parents and 92 percent of Catholic school parents are highly satisfied with their children's education.

Forty-two percent of parents say it's "somewhat hard" or "very hard" to find enough information about the educational options; 72 percent say city parents need more good choices.

Sixty-two percent of parents said the expansion of charter schools has been a good thing.

"In Philadelphia, charter schools have been embraced by parents in a way that resembles a slow-motion stampede," the report says. "This trend has developed in the face of evidence that many charters perform no better than district schools, and a constant drumbeat of news reports and investigations regarding alleged and proven improprieties in the way charters operate."

Researchers found that the growth of charters - there were 67 in the year just ended - not only left the district with 45,000 empty seats, but also weakened a system of Catholic schools already grappling with fewer Catholics living in the city.

Most pastors, Catholic administrators, and officials in the archdiocese said they expected the decline to continue. One Catholic educator in the report said that charters had in effect "stolen the Catholic brand" by emphasizing safety, discipline, and the teaching of values, but not charging tuition. "It is competition we can't meet," the educator said.

The Catholic schools already receive support from organizations such as Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS). A new group called the Philadelphia School Project aims to raise private money to support good schools, no matter who operates them.

 


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

Read the study at www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch