Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Philadelphia families have access to information about school options, students have access to free transportation to all schools, and the city is building a diverse school supply. To inform the education strategy, the city needs to amend current policies to ensure  that schools are able to locate where they are most needed, streamline enrollment timelines, and provide more engagement opportunities for families most impacted by low-performing schools.


Do students have access to a high-quality education?


Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.


► Is transportation working for families?

The district provides all students outside of the 1.5 mile walk zone with free transportation (by transit pass or bus) to any school of choice: district, charter, or private. Despite the challenges associated with young students using a public transit system, community leaders do not cite this as a significant barrier for families. Community leaders say that families want high-quality school options within walking distance, but perceive that many neighborhoods still lack such options.


► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

About one-third of the district and charter schools that opened, restarted, or expanded between 2014-15 and 2017-18 use a non-traditional instructional model, like project-based learning or personalized approaches. However, school model variety is more limited in low-income communities.


► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

Information about performance, enrollment, and school culture is available for all district, charter, and parochial schools through the Great Philly Schools website, which is operated by the Philadelphia Schools Partnership. The SDP Charter Schools Office’s directory offers similar information for charter schools, as well as performance, curriculum, finance, and evaluation data, and SDP has also made data more transparent through their new School Profiles site. Despite the plethora of information available, community leaders report that families still need more information about student services like special education and ELL, and more support to choose schools that are a good fit.


► Is the enrollment process working for families?

SDP and the charter sector have separate enrollment systems, and deadlines are not aligned. Community members report that many families—especially low-income families—are not aware of SDP’s deadline for applying to district choice schools, including selective admissions and non-assigned neighborhood schools, which comes much earlier than charter school deadlines. However, there is progress within the charter sector. The Philadelphia School Partnership, a local nonprofit, has launched a common application, which the majority of charter schools use, and is working toward a common online enrollment system for the 2019-2020 school year. Most charter schools also adhere to one of two enrollment deadlines. The Philadelphia Schools Partnership holds an annual school fair showcasing all schools in the city, charter and district. The district also hosts choice fairs every year.


► Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

While many strategies are in place to improve the school supply, there remain barriers to implementation. SDP and the School Reform Commission (SRC), which has been the city’s only charter authorizer, collect and use data in line with the citywide school portfolio plan, the System of Great Schools. SDP is adding schools to the Turnaround Network (schools that receive extra resources for internal turnaround), but there is a perception among some education leaders that the SRC has not used data aggressively enough to invest in school improvement or close persistently under-performing schools. Under the newly appointed school board, this may change. The district’s signature turnaround strategy, the Renaissance Schools Initiative, has been on hold until an evaluation can be completed. The SDP issues RFPs that specify what kind of models are needed for new district schools, but interviewees reported that there are few quality applicants. Within the charter sector, there is an over-abundance of K-8 and K-12 schools, which limit opportunities for students to enroll in middle or high school charter schools, and there is a perception that schools are not consistently opening where needed. By state charter law, charter school applications cannot be denied based on lack of need alone, limiting the district’s ability to strategically plan school openings. However, SDP’s Charter School Office has continued to improve oversight and support to authorizing and renewal practices, most recently by revamping its performance framework to better align with federal and state policies as well as feedback from the charter sector.  

Is the education system continuously improving?


Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.


► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

Our interviewees identified school leader quality as uneven in both sectors, with strong leadership lacking in district comprehensive high schools and charter school that are expanding or replicating. Several cross-sector fellowship and pipeline efforts are in place to build talent, like the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders and PhillyPLUS. To attract strong candidates that are a good fit for their schools, SDP has developed a ‘competency map’ for school leaders and is working to align hiring processes with these competencies. SDP is also starting to manage and develop clear leadership pathways, match experienced leaders to schools, and create a more competitive hiring process by starting recruitment earlier in the year.


► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

Teacher fit and quality are issues in both district and charter schools. SDP has expanded its evaluation team to push for greater quality and identify specific teacher development needs. It is also starting to use differentiated retention strategies to reduce the attrition of effective teachers. Education leaders say that more special education and STEM-certified teachers are needed in both district and charter schools. Philadelphia has done a good job of forming cross-sector partnerships to address these gaps through pipeline, development, and residency programs, like the Relay Teaching Residency and expanded partnerships with local schools of education.

Little in Place

► Does funding equitably follow students?

In 2016, Pennsylvania began using a weighted formula to distribute money to districts, but as of 2017, the district still allocated funds to schools using staffing formulas rather than basing allocation on costs within specific schools. Schools had little discretion over budgets based on an analysis of Fiscal Year 2017-18. Anecdotally, SDP has recently increased support to its neediest schools.

Is the education strategy rooted in the community?


Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.


► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

In late 2017, the partially state-appointed School Reform Commission voted to dissolve itself and return SDP to local, mayoral control. Mayor Kenney has appointed a new school board, and there has been little public opposition to this move. There is optimism over the possibilities for the new leadership, and public support is strong. However,  issues like charter expansion, teacher compensation, and school choice   remain politically contentious, so the new board faces challenging work ahead.


► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

In the past year, the district has taken steps toward more regular engagement with families about school openings and closures. The district partnered with Temple University and third-party facilitators to better involve families in exploring options for schools flagged for turnaround. The district has also implemented school advisory councils to improve parent engagement within schools. However, these councils do not inform system-level decisions. The Charter Schools Office holds public meetings, but these are sparsely attended. In 2017, interviewees noted that because of lengthy appeals processes, final decisions about charter school closures are sometimes made after enrollment deadlines, leaving families scrambling to find a new school.


► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

Local businesses, faith-based communities, local funders, and the teachers union are engaged in education in the city. However, community leaders say that many of these perspectives are not representative of all families and that black and Hispanic community members and parents representing low-performing schools are often left out of the conversation. Organizations like Parent Power and Educational Opportunities for Families do help fill this gap.

Little in Place

► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

SDP, the Charter Schools Office, and many charter schools are trying to improve responsiveness by creating more formal avenues for families to provide feedback. SDP recently launched the Family Academy, which provides classes to help parents advocate for their students and schools. But community members say there is still a widespread perception among families that the education system does not listen to the needs of the entire community. Some feel that the engagement process favors those with the loudest voices, who are often the most resourced, and that education leaders mainly seek input on issues they see as priorities, rather then soliciting issues of concern to community members. At the school level, interviewees in 2017 said that some school leaders can be unwelcoming and unresponsive to the needs of low-income families.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels


About Philadelphia

In 2018, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) returned to local control for the first time in 17 years, with a new school board replacing the School Reform Commission. Severe funding challenges have dogged Philadelphia for years which, combined with falling enrollment, forced SDP to close 10% of its schools in 2013. Charter schools have been operating in the city since 1997, and now account for nearly a third of total public school enrollment.  The SDP’s Renaissance Schools Initiative is a cooperative effort between the district and high-performing charter management organizations to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools. Since its inception in 2010, 22 Renaissance schools have opened throughout the city.

School Choice in the City

Families can choose district magnet schools, citywide charter schools, or any district school outside of their neighborhood as long as enrollment at that school is under 85% capacity.

Governance Model

The mayor appoints board members who oversee SDP schools and authorize charter schools. The new board is replacing the School Reform Commission for the 2018-19 school year.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 194,557 students
Race and ethnicity: 55% black, 19% Hispanic, 14% white, 12% other
Low-income: 85% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from EDFacts, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email