Philadelphia and Pittsburgh: Five charts and two families at the center of the school choice debate

Since the state enacted a charter school law 20 years ago, starkly different trends have played out in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

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Left: Downtown Pittsburgh (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Right: Philadelphia skyline (SeanPavonePhoto/Bigstock)

Left: Downtown Pittsburgh (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) Right: Philadelphia skyline (SeanPavonePhoto/Bigstock)

Mike McGrenehan thought he was headed for a life in the suburbs.

Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, not far from the city limits, McGrenehan always figured he’d marry, have kids, and ship off to the open spaces of suburbia. The “McMansion push,” he called it.

He moved to Montgomery County when he and his wife first married, but it never quite felt like home.

“When we left, we were out on an island,” he said.

After a few years, they moved back to Northeast Philly, had three kids, but reached another turning point when their oldest turned five.

Where would their kids go to school?

McGrenehan posted a map in his home office thumb-tacked with potential options. Catholic school would be pricey. His local public schools, by McGrenehan’s estimation, didn’t have the test scores or resources to compete. The suburban school districts seemed awesome, but that ‘island’ feeling loomed.

MaST, a charter school on the edge of town with a sterling academic reputation, became his ideal.

“That’s what the hope and dream became,” he said. “If we got MaST, we wouldn’t have to consider leaving.”

The McGrenehan family at their home in Northeast Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In 2008, his family won the admissions lottery and they’ve been living in Northeast Philadelphia ever since.

McGrenenhan’s story is a textbook case of how a popular school can keep people in a city. And it drives toward a point you hear often from politicians:

If we do not have quality schools in every neighborhood, the people who have helped to reverse the city’s decades of population loss, will not stay.

That’s a direct quote from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who said it last year during a major speech on education.

Charter school advocates say stories like those of the McGrenehans prove that school choice is key to achieving this goal. And data from Pennsylvania’s two largest cities seem, at first glance, to back up this claim.

Since the state enacted a charter school law 20 years ago, starkly different trends have played out in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In Philadelphia, school choice has exploded and citywide enrollment has been steady.

In Pittsburgh, there’s been more skepticism of school choice and enrollment keeps dropping.

But are these enrollment trends a reflection of policy choices? Or is the link between the two more complicated?

‘Catastrophe averted’

From 1990 to 2000, both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had steady public school enrollment, but in the early 2000s their paths began to split.

Philadelphia’s total enrollment — which includes district schools and public charters — ticked down slightly, dropping 3.8 percent from 2001 to 2016. Pittsburgh’s, meanwhile, cratered: a full 27.8 percent drop over those same 15 years.

In fact, Pittsburgh, despite its much smaller size, actually lost more students total over that time period (10,871) than Philadelphia did (8,108).

School choice advocates say charter growth in Philadelphia explains why the city’s enrollment has remained fairly stable. Philadelphia added about 70,000 charter seats since 1997. It also expanded other forms of choice, such a magnet and specialty schools within the traditional system.

“I see a catastrophe averted,” said Mark Gleason, head of Philadelphia School Partnership, which has seeded several charter school start-ups. “In other words we’ve seen fairly stable student enrollment and we’ve seen fairly stable population on the whole.”

Parents like Mike McGrenehan are Gleason’s ‘Exhibit A.’ Without options, he says those families would have taken their kids — and their tax dollars — beyond the city line.

For decades, that was the story in Philadelphia, where population peaked at over two million in 1950 and then fell until the year 2000.

“There was a whole middle class that left, black and white,” said State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat who helped pass Pennsylvania’s charter law in 1997. “And now we’ve seen that really slow significantly.”

Philadelphia’s total population has grown about 3.5 percent since 2000, due largely to an influx of immigrants and millenials. But school choice advocates think the addition of charter schools has swayed some families who would have otherwise left, and that the population trends would look far worse if Philadelphia’s education system hadn’t undergone massive changes.

Not everyone, however, buys that explanation.

When it comes to the city’s overall population trends, Donna Cooper, a longtime education advocate and former aide to Governor Ed Rendell, notes that there are larger economic and cultural forces benefitting coastal cities like Philadelphia.

“I think personally there’s a little bit of a renaissance and it’s bigger than the schools,” she said. “It’s this sense that younger people wanna live in cities.”

Pittsburgh’s population has also started to bounce back more recently, but the overall trends are less encouraging. Since 2000, the city’s population has dropped eight percent.

Leaving Pittsburgh

Rebecca Lee’s family is an example of a common trend in Pittsburgh.

In April, she and her husband and their two young boys moved 15 miles north of their first house in the city. They built in a development filled with two story homes and plenty of green space.

The Lees wanted to be closer to their friends, but they also wanted to escape the city school district.

“The school that you feed into from the north side is very poorly rated,” Rebecca Lee said.

When her oldest son was approaching kindergarten age she asked the parents of kids in his preschool if they were sending their child to the neighborhood public school.

“I don’t think anybody sent their child to that school. They either were able to get their kid into one of the magnets or they went private or they moved,” she said.

Rebecca and Keegan Lee at the family’s home outside of Pittsburgh.
Rebecca and Keegan Lee at the family’s Wexford home. (Sarah Schneider/WESA)

Her son attended a Pittsburgh magnet school with a Spanish-language emphasis for most of kindergarten, which Lee liked. But, she was concerned about where he would go as he got older.

Now, the family lives in the Pine-Richland School District, which scores well on state standardized tests and exceeds most benchmark indicators, including third grade reading.

What will make them stay?

Some say families like the Lees might have stayed in the city if they had the type of choices families in Philadelphia do.

While about a third of Philadelphia students attend a charter school only about 15 percent do in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has been much more skeptical of charter schools than Philadelphia, and the school board frequently denies charter applications.

Rachel Amankulor, who previously worked with PennCAN, a statewide education advocacy group, thinks the district sees fewer applications proportionally than Philadelphia because Pittsburgh’s board uses the process as a deterrent.

“What you’re seeing in other districts is this categorical opposition to charters is no longer acceptable. If you look at cities making the most progress, their educational leaders believe that not one system alone can serve all kids well but it takes charters and districts working together to create high-quality options for all kids,” she said.

Amankulor sees a link between charter school policy and Pittsburgh enrollment decline.

“I really think the charter sector is keeping families in [Philadelphia] in a way that the charter sector here hasn’t,” she said.

While this could be true in individual cases, it may miss the bigger picture in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where there is important regional context to consider.

The above chart shows the population trends in each city’s metro area since 2000.

The Philadelphia region has grown more than seven percent over that time period, while Pittsburgh and its outlying areas have dropped about four percent.

Those disparities point to larger economic trends.

Western Pennsylvania’s industrial base collapsed in the 1970s an 80s, and people have since fled the area.

Pittsburgh is one of few cities in the country where the death rate is higher than the birth rate. It lost more residents last year than any other metro area except Chicago. That can be attributed to a large elderly population — people who chose to stay for the long haul even after the steel mills closed.

So on a macro level, statewide onlookers say Pittsburgh’s school enrollment trends make sense as an aftershock of this history.

“There was a very clear sense that there was an economy here, and now there isn’t anymore,” said David Thornburgh. “There was much more urgency around that question than trying to take on the schools.”

Thornburgh says the availability of jobs has much more to do with population trends than any school policy measure, which is especially true in Western Pa., where industry declines were felt acutely.

“When I was a kid you drove into the city past the Jones and Laughlin Mill, that was belching fire and smoke and fumes 24 hours a day,” said Thornburgh.  “And then it was gone.”

Pittsburgh has since moved on from its industrial roots, and the story now is revitalization. The city’s economy is bouncing back. The median home value has increased, poverty is slowing and tech companies are attracting young people.

But there’s a long way to go, and viewed through this broad, economic lens, the story of the Lee family actually could be seen as a big victory for Pittsburgh, not a loss.

Just getting families to stay in the area reverses the larger trend while boosting the regional economy. Plus, Pittsburgh is part of Allegheny County, and still receives tax benefits when a family plants roots in of the county’s 42 suburban school districts.

On this point, though, Philadelphia is a different story.

The city is its own county, and when a family leaves, a larger portion of the dollars leave with them.

“The game for Philadelphia schools is to attract people that actually do have choices, who could move to Bucks County or South Jersey or Delaware County in pursuit of better schools,” said Thornburgh.

Poverty trends

If the goal is to retain families who otherwise would have the financial wherewithal to leave town, by some measures Philadelphia appears to be struggling despite its embrace of school choice.

Even with the encouraging population trends, the city’s poverty rate has grown five percentage points since 1990. Pittsburgh’s poverty rate, meanwhile, has dipped 3 percentage points over that same period of time.

Some point out that many of Philadelphia’s charter schools serve a largely poor student body. About three-quarters of the city’s charter school students are low-income, according to one Stanford study. That’s a slightly smaller share than the city’s traditional public schools, but still suggests that many families who choose charter schools might not have the capacity to pick up and leave if they’re unsatisfied with their options.

“In general I’m not convinced the children who are enrolled in charters are the children of families who had the capacity to move,” said Donna Cooper.

In other words, she thinks folks like Mike McGrenehan are aberrations.

And if charters do help keep some middle-income families in a city, that opens the door to another critique. Detractors note that MaST is whiter and wealthier than the city as a whole, and even the traditional public school in its backyard.

Charter skeptics in both cities also worry that school choice benefits engaged parents while leaving more and more disadvantaged kids clustered in traditional public schools.

“We’re going to have to figure out a larger fight, a larger way, a larger strategy to educate the children of the city of Pittsburgh,” said Pittsburgh School Board member Sala Udin at a recent meeting. “All of the children. Not just those who are siphoned off into choice. What about the ones you leave behind? They’re our children too.”

Whether you think school choice helped Philadelphia stave off worse losses over the last 20 years or not, just about everyone seems to agree that the next 20 will be vital.

Both cities have established some momentum, and the direction of the schools will likely play a role in either maintaining or sapping that momentum.

The key for Pennsylvania’s two major cities, many say, is to stop wealth from fleeing for the ‘burbs while giving poor families a ladder up. Jeff Hornstein, head of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, puts it bluntly:

“I don’t think there’s anything more important than having a well-funded, robust, public education system.”

—Data assistance by Research for Action.

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