The Berlin Wall of Philadelphia’s Public Schools

Students in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had their hopes dashed last week when they lost out on the chance to land one of the few vacant openings in charter schools.

In Pittsburgh, more than 500 applied for openings at Environmental Charter School, but only 28 spots were available. The school, as required by law, held a lottery to determine the lucky winners and the unfortunate families who would be denied the opportunity this year.

The same story—even magnified—took place on the other side of the state. Philadelphia’s Math and Science Technology charter schools (MaST) received an incredible 5,000 applications for 98 slots. The school earned a 90 on the new School Performance Profile, which Newsworks reports as the highest score for a non-magnet school in Philadelphia.

As Anastasia heard her daughter’s name– Nicole Ratkova– called over the speakers, her heart pounded and tears welled in her eyes.

Nicole had been selected for the top spot on the 9th-grade waiting list – an outcome tied in part to the fact that her younger brother attends kindergarten at the school. Siblings of MaST students get a boost in the lottery.

Waiting list was the best news for which the pair could hope. The only new students MaST admitted in the lottery were those applying for kindergarten. For the 4,219 students hoping to get into grades 1-12, the ride on the wait-list was predetermined. The parents were there to jockey only for order.

According to the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, 44,000 students currently are on waiting lists to get into charter schools. Why are so many students dependent on a lottery to determine their fate?

Currently, charter schools must apply to a local school district to get approval. As many school districts view charters as unwanted competition, this can be a difficult process. Indeed, it is akin to requiring McDonald’s to approve any new Wendy’s in the same area.

In Philadelphia, the situation has gotten worse. The School District of Philadelphia is demanding that all charter schools agree to caps on enrollment. Effectively, they are trying to set up a wall to keep students trapped in schools they want to leave.

These caps are illegal in every other district, but Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission has broad exemptions from the law. Unfortunately, by limiting charter schools, they are simply limiting the opportunities available for student and denying families the choices they are demanding.

Pending legislation would help alleviate this logjam, giving universities the ability to authorize new charter schools. At least 16 states allow multiple authorizers, including 13 states that empower universities to approve charter schools’ application.

Pennsylvania should follow their lead and open up new avenues for school choice, rather than continue to write sad stories of doors being closed on bright futures because of how a ping pong ball bounces.