Choosing Philadelphia Schools: Exploring Options and Challenges

Philadelphia’s Public Schools and Charter Schools

Philadelphia’s public schools have long been known for their violence and segregation. But that’s only part of the story.

A growing industry has developed to help parents choose a school for their children, a decision often as big as choosing a home. This issue of Philly Mag examines that landscape, from citywide magnet schools to highly competitive special admission programs.


The first public school district in Philadelphia began in 1818, a year after alarming changes in the city prompted the state legislature to establish a public education system. Poverty and crime had become major problems.

In 1911 state lawmakers instituted the Public School Reorganization Act and gave the local school board the power to raise money for expansion of the public schools in the city. Superintendents such as James MacAlister, Edward Brooks, and Martin Brumbaugh promoted centralized leadership and a more scientific approach to education.

But by the time Clayton arrived in the early 1950s, the reputation of the Philadelphia schools had been damaged. The city’s politicians, parents and teachers had lost faith in the school system. The district had become segregated. And the schools were crowded.


The right of every person to all the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of public schools without discrimination on the basis of race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, or national origin is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. (Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission v. School District of Philadelphia, 1984).

Today, Philadelphia has 98 publicly funded high schools, including 24 neighborhood schools that offer a variety of programs. Those include 21 highly competitive programs that require academic standards for admission and 43 charter high schools.

Despite these efforts, Philadelphia remains one of the most segregated cities in America. A combination of factors has contributed to this. These include a ten-year property tax abatement that has stymied the primary source of school funding, as well as racially differentiated urban governance and a strained administrative budget that leaves many teachers short of basic resources.


As Philadelphia’s charter schools proliferate, local policymakers have been sparring over their administration and funding. They are also grappling with how these institutions should be treated when it comes to school district boundaries and budgets.

In a city whose school system was founded nearly two hundred years ago, the issues of integration have long been at play. Despite segregation, many Philadelphia students now attend integrated schools and are exposed to different cultures.

But desegregation was difficult to achieve. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision pushed school districts to integrate. In Philadelphia, the board opted for a voluntary plan that relied on parental cooperation rather than forced busing. The effort was not without its struggles, and a discrimination suit against the district remained open until 2002.


While the district awaits an infusion of money a court ordered, it is trying to do more with less. Principals at district schools complain that the budget doesn’t provide enough wiggle room.

The district allocates jobs to individual schools each spring, and those allocations are largely based on current enrollment numbers. Then, each school can choose whether to spend its remaining money on a new teacher or other supplies.

Some principals are cutting staff and programs to prepare for the next school year. For example, teachers at Franklin Learning Center are worried that they will lose school climate managers and literacy and math specialists, according to a survey from CASA, which represents Philadelphia principals. They also worry about losing students if they can’t offer a particular high-demand course.


Early superintendents like James MacAlister, Edward Brooks, and Martin Brumbaugh convinced Philadelphians that the district needed a distinguished leader and centralized management. But their efforts were hampered by opposition from the ward boards and the broader public.

When Tony Watlington became district superintendent, he set the goal of making Philadelphia one of the fastest-improving large urban school districts in the country. But he has struggled to communicate that vision to staff, schools, and parents.

His predecessors, William Hite and the members of the School Reform Commission (SRC), also struggled to communicate with the public. The SRC offended politicians with deficits, parents by closing schools, and teachers with its refusal to negotiate a contract with their union. Its tenure ended after Mayor Kenney called for the return of local control.

Go Home

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *