The Pennsylvania charter school law was enacted in 1997, authorizing the creation of public schools that operate independently of their surrounding district. The law was amended in 2002 to permit “cyber” charter schools, which deliver instruction through the Internet to students in their homes. There are now 81 traditional charter schools in Philadelphia, and 16 schools turned over to charter operators by the School District of Philadelphia through the “Renaissance School” reform process. Currently, more than 25 percent of all public school students in Philadelphia attend charter schools, among the highest of any city in the country. Many expect the number will soon grow to over 40 percent. In addition, Pennsylvania has the largest cyber charter school population — over 30,000 students — of any state in the country.

Meanwhile, student demographics in charter schools, as a whole, do not reflect their surrounding districts, even though charter schools, as public schools, are prohibited from illegal discrimination. In addition, there are universally recognized problems with charter school funding, particularly with cyber charters, which receive the same funding without the costs of running a brick-and-mortar school building. Last month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly narrowly failed to pass charter school amendments that would have expanded charter enrollment, without fixing the problems of inequitable funding and improper exclusion of students.

At the Education Law Center, we run a hotline to protect the rights of particularly vulnerable students in public schools — minority students, students with disabilities, students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, students for whom English is a second language, students connected to the juvenile justice system and undocumented students. A disproportionate percentage of our calls come from parents of students in charter schools. The stories of “Aaron,” “Naomi,” “Grace” and “Jaiel” are representative of the kinds of cases that charter reform should seek to eliminate.

Aaron and his mother were excited when he won the lottery to attend sixth grade at a local charter school. They were hopeful the school would better serve his disabilities and accommodate his non-English speaking family. His mother purchased the school’s uniform and provided the voluminous documents the school required as a condition of enrollment. A week before school started, Aaron’s mother was told that she should return his uniform. After reviewing a psychological evaluation that described some of Aaron’s more challenging behaviors, the school decided it was not able to accommodate Aaron.

Naomi, a kindergartener with a disability, was recently barred from entering her neighborhood’s newly created “Renaissance” charter school. The school told her foster parents that they could not accommodate her occasional incontinence, which is caused by medication she is taking. Schools have no legal basis for excluding students, like Aaron and Naomi, who have never violated their behavior code, but these kinds of pre-emptive exclusions are common.

Some charters are also quick to expel students under “zero tolerance” policies, even for minor behavioral offenses. Grace, a 10th grade charter school student, snuck out of school early and went home. Her punishment, for “behavior unbecoming of a [charter school] student,” was permanent expulsion, the most serious form of punishment available to schools. Jaiel was in kindergarten when his charter school teacher sat down to read a story. When she complained of aching legs, Jaiel patted her thighs and said, “I wish I could make them feel better.” He was permanently expelled for “inappropriate touching.”

Most parents do not consider challenging their charter school, so students like these above usually end up back in the local school district. Of course, there are traditional school districts that also push the boundaries of, or outright violate, the law. But, we have found that these kinds of problems are more common in charter schools, where students can always enroll in their local district. This does not work in reverse. A student barred from enrolling or pushed out of a district school is unlikely to find entry into a charter school.

The School District of Philadelphia recently analyzed the enrollment applications of the 25 charter schools that were up for renewal this past school year and found significant barriers at 17 of them. The following are examples of the kinds of practices they discovered:

• 25-page application forms. (Legally compliant charter applications are one page.)

• Limiting access to applications. (One charter application was only available online for 12 hours. Many charters refuse to provide applications until parents attend orientation meetings, sometimes far distances from where the charter school is located.)

• Screening for aptitude — setting grade point average requirements; administering “placement” tests; requiring children to submit written essays; and requiring letters of recommendation from previous teachers, community members and church leaders as a condition of enrollment.

• Requiring information about income level, employment status, citizenship, place of birth and Social Security numbers (all of which is illegal under state law to even request).

• Reviewing documentation of a child’s disability as a condition of enrollment (also illegal).

Not surprisingly, enrollment demographics reflect these barriers. While some charters are serving all kids, charters as a whole in Philadelphia underserve students with severe disabilities, English language learners, students in poverty, and even boys. Below are the cumulative 2010-11 numbers in Philadelphia’s 81 charter schools:

• English language learners — 7.35 percent of district students are ELL students, compared to only 2.35 percent in charter schools (60 percent of charter schools serve zero ELLs).

• Students with disabilities — Students with severe disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in charter schools. Charters serve barely half the percentage of students with autism as traditional districts. Several charter schools in Philadelphia have zero children with any disabilities enrolled.

• Students in poverty — Philadelphia charters enroll 11 percent fewer students who are eligible for the free/reduced lunch program than do district schools — a 6,254 student gap.

• Boys — Charter schools in Philadelphia enroll 1,072 fewer boys than girls, even though in the district there are 4,376 more boys than girls. A number of charters enroll fewer than 40 percent boys.

There should be consequences if charter schools pick and choose their students. The perception that charters are permitted to be exclusive, often promoted by charter operators themselves, is precisely what appeals to many parents. This creates an unfair competitive advantage and ensures that even poorly operated charters will continue to have long waiting lists. Before any charter expansion is adopted by the General Assembly, we suggest three charter reforms to protect the interests of the most vulnerable students.

• Simplify enrollment. With over 80 different charter schools in Philadelphia, we currently have 80 different applications, with 80 deadlines and 80 lotteries. Children of parents who are either incapable or unwilling to navigate this complex system — in other words, children who most desperately need a quality public school — are often barred from school choice. The charter law should permit each community with multiple charter schools to adopt a universal charter application form and enrollment process.

• Fix funding for charters and traditional districts. Pennsylvania already trails the nation with among the lowest percentage of school funding that comes from state tax revenues, leading to extreme inequity from community to community. Charters are overwhelmingly located in poor communities that already have inadequate local property taxes to pay for quality public schools. The current system pits charters and districts against each other in a fight over this inadequate pot of money. This, along with the unlevel playing field described above, ensures unhealthy competition and stifles collaboration. In addition, the current charter funding mechanism provides the same funding for each student with a disability, regardless of the severity of that student’s disability. This creates a perverse incentive to over-identify students with low-level disabilities and under-identify (or under-enroll) students with severe disabilities. We must ensure adequate funding of all public schools — charter and district — and remove these funding incentives.

• Improve the way we evaluate schools. Accountability is important, but we must ask, accountability for what? If we continue to punish schools that serve difficult students, because of low test scores, and reward schools that are selective, we can expect schools to continue excluding students who are perceived as difficult to serve. Reforms must ensure that if schools are competing, they are competing over how well they serve all students, not over which students to serve.

At the Education Law Center, we admire some of the excellent charters that serve all students. We see tremendous promise in well-run charter schools and other smaller autonomous public schools — where management works in closer proximity to and with teachers, students and parents. But, with such a large share of charter students already, the disparities and exclusive practices described above have a dramatic impact on both charters and traditional public schools. This is why charter reform must ensure that “school choice” is equally available to all students. •

David Lapp is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy and educational organization dedicated to ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to a quality public education.