Finding a Seat: Philly Kids Need More School Choice

Starting with magnet schools in the 1970s, the Philadelphia School District has had some form of public school choice for decades. The opening of the first charter schools in 1997 and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program in 2001 greatly increased the availability of parental choice. The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit was added in 2012 to direct scholarships to kids in low-performing schools, which sadly includes most Philadelphia children.

These days there are more than 300 public school options in Philadelphia, including more than 100 charter campuses, which are publicly funded but privately run. There are also nearly 200 private schools. While education options exist, accessing those choices can be difficult. The biggest problem parents face is arbitrary caps that limit how many students can enroll in a school of choice.

One-third of Philadelphia students—approximately 70,000—currently attend public charter schools, but thousands more apply each year and are denied due to district-imposed enrollment caps. As a result, there are Ivy League universities with higher acceptance rates than some Philadelphia charter schools. Moreover, the district has large charter school deserts where families have no nearby charter school option.

The biggest problem parents face is arbitrary caps that limit how many students can enroll in a school of choice.


Philly parents who seek a private school alternative for their children face a similarly daunting task, as thousands of children are placed on tax credit scholarship wait lists each year due to state-mandated caps.

While wait lists show that thousands of families manage to navigate the complex application and enrollment systems, thousands of kids are being left behind. Simplifying the process will help those kids.

The Philadelphia School District already uses a single admissions process for its schools (special admission, city-wide and other neighborhood schools). Students can apply to up to 5 schools; the district then assigns students based on several criteria.

However, until recently, each charter school had its own application process. The new Apply Philly Charter tool is changing that, with more than 70 charter campuses utilizing in a uniform application to simplify the system. But the enrollment process is still complicated and varies by school.

Accessing school choice shouldn’t be this complex—parents should be empowered to find the education that best fits their children. Some are calling for Philadelphia to follow the lead of cities like Indianapolis, Chicago, and Washington, DC, all of which employ a uniform enrollment system for district and charter schools.

Last month the group Educational Opportunities for Families released Finding a Seat, a report that reviewed processes in other cities and included feedback from parents and stakeholders across Philadelphia. The report broadly recommends:

  • Streamlining application and selection processes across school types.
  • Increasing availability and accessibility of school information.
  • Improving access to transportation.

Simplifying the application and enrollment process is certainly a noble goal. However, there are risks with any top-down system.

  • Private schools—even those that accept tax credit scholarships—should never be forced to participate in an outside enrollment system. Individual private schools have unique characteristics that set them apart. Their application process may reflect that distinctiveness. However, for the benefit of families using the system, private schools should be allowed to opt in to the program.
  • District schools, which are taxpayer funded and government run, should be required to participate in a district-wide uniform enrollment system. The system can be made to accommodate things like geographic boundaries and special admission requirements.
  • Charter schools are taxpayer funded, but they are designed to operate with more freedom and flexibility than government-run schools. Mandating a specific enrollment process could interfere with a school’s unique value. Thus, like private schools, charters should be eligible—but not mandated—to participate in any uniform enrollment system.

It is likely that many private and charter schools would opt in to a uniform enrollment system because it would allow them to reach more potential students. The opt-in model would offer both accessibility and variety without cramping the freedom and flexibility of these schools.

The Finding a Seat report is an excellent overview of the issues parents face in their hunt for the best educational options for their children. Provided the ability of private and charter schools to remain independent is protected, there is tremendous value in pursuing a district-wide application and enrollment system.

However, students will only be able to “find a seat” if there are more seats available. As long as charter schools and tax credit scholarships are arbitrarily capped, thousands of students will be denied access to their school of choice. Helping parents navigate a complex system is important. Increasing the availability of choices through an EITC and OSTC expansion and Education Scholarship Accounts is even more important.