What school choice really looks like in Philadelphia

Lawmakers in Harrisburg seem to have their say on what parents and students in Philadelphia want.

The education debate has intensified this year as lawmakers once again bicker over a potential school voucher program to send students to private schools with taxpayer money and attempt to develop a up-to-date school financing system.

As the fight over a up-to-date voucher system heats up, with school choice advocates, public education advocates, teachers unions and even Jay-Z pouring money into the fight, there is already a school choice program in the state.

Currently, parents in Pennsylvania can send their children to private school through two existing programs that allow companies or individuals to receive tax breaks in exchange for a donation to the school or scholarship fund. With the funds obtained, families can apply to send their child to a private school. Total programs $470 million in scholarships per year, according to the advocacy group Education Voters of Pennsylvania. These programs are different from vouchers, which would provide parents with state funds directly to exploit to pay for their child’s college tuition and other expenses.

Philadelphia families receiving these scholarships represent a compact fraction of the nearly 200,000 Philadelphia students attending Philadelphia public schools, charter schools or cyber charters, and many parents, teachers and public school advocates say the money would be better spent on improving public education in State.

Tax credit programs have high maximum earnings, and only one of them is designed to lend a hand students living in low-performing neighborhoods. Many Democratic lawmakers who largely oppose vouchers note that these programs are susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse. But the issue is more complicated for some Philadelphia legislators who support school choice and their constituents who benefit from existing programs.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

Kamesha Callands of West Oak Lane still has vibrant memories of her time as a public school student: the smell of urine, falling ceiling tiles, the frequency of bullying, reading scores from behind the crowd.

She was determined to send her daughter, Sabrina Callands-Edmonds, to private school.

As a student in the Philadelphia School District, Callands attended public, charter and private schools during her own K-12 education. After the charter school closed, she was able to attend a private school thanks to the Philadelphia Children’s Scholarship Fund, one of many programs financed by tax breaks available statewide. Her mother, Darlene Callands, is a tireless advocate for school choice, including as founder of the advocacy group African Americans for Educational Opportunity.

Currently, Callands’ daughter is a CSFP scholarship recipient and attends Our Lady of Consolation School in Chestnut Hill. More than 6,000 children in Philadelphia received CSFP scholarships during the 2023-24 school year, and the maximum grant amount is less than $3,000. Parents are expected to contribute at least $500 per year toward tuition.

Callands still had difficulty paying her share of her daughter’s tuition, and she left her beloved job at the Department of Human Services for a better-paying position at the Community College of Philadelphia to get by. But she said that if she had to, she would work multiple jobs to be able to send Sabrina – who thrives in compact classes and loves academic rigor – to a private school.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Callands said. “I was definitely going to work.”

However, the scholarship turned out to be a “huge help,” Callands added. “It would definitely be a struggle,” she added.

Public school teacher says public schools are not an ‘option’

For Crystal Best, a fourth-grade teacher in the Philadelphia School District, public school was something she considered for her daughter, Cydney Booker. But when the Mount Airy resident needed a preschool program for her 3-year-old daughter, she enrolled her at DePaul High School in Germantown.

“For me, public school was an option. They had some good things to offer,” said Best, whose daughter is now 14. “But it was an option. It was not the option.”

Her daughter applied and was accepted into Springside Chestnut Hill Kindergarten, but available state scholarships barely made a dent in the situation Tuition at an elite school for $30,000.

“I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck to say my daughter was going to Penn Charter,” Best added.

Instead, Best used a tax-credit-funded scholarship program to keep her daughter at DePaul School, where she graduated as valedictorian of the eighth grade last week. Cydney will attend Little Flower High School in Hunting Park on full scholarship next year.

A top private school provided her daughter with smaller class sizes, individualized attention, and the opportunity to learn from a group of diverse peers.

But as a public teacher, she wonders why students must attend private schools to have small class sizes.

“What can we do to offer public schools what private schools offer?” she asked her state lawmakers.

Bus advertising and whim

A chance bus advertisement changed Shante Woodlin’s future.

While hanging around Philadelphia, she saw an advertisement for a program that claimed she could send her child to a private school at a reduced cost. She volunteered on a whim, just before her daughter, Eden, started kindergarten.

She and her husband didn’t know much about the local public elementary school and wanted to send their daughter to a Christian school if they could afford it. When Woodlin received the scholarship, she heard about Fairmount City School from someone at her church and applied. It turned out to be the perfect solution for a family.

The scholarship program also provided flexibility for the family: The scholarship allowed Woodlin to be a stay-at-home mom to Eden and her younger son, Levi, after which she returned to work and is a counselor at their school. Eden is now 8 and Levi is 5.

The family lives in Northeast Philadelphia and commutes at least 40 minutes to school every day.

“It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to ensure their future,” Woodlin said. “I shouldn’t be limited to the school in my neighborhood or a certain type of school because I live in a certain area code.”

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