Why these Philly parents chose to send their kid to private school

Gillian McGoldrick, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

PHILADELPHIA -- Lawmakers in Harrisburg all seem to have an opinion about what Philadelphia parents and students want.

And the debate over education is heightened this year, as legislators again fight over a potential school voucher program to send students to private schools using taxpayer dollars and attempt to design a new school funding system.

While the fight over a new voucher system heats up, with school choice supporters, public education advocates, teachers unions, and even Jay-Z pouring money into the fight, there is already a school choice program operating in the state.

Currently, Pennsylvania parents can choose to send their children to private school through two existing programs that allow businesses or individuals to get tax credits in exchange for donating to a school or scholarship fund. Families can apply to send their child to a private school using those funds. The programs total $470 million in scholarships per year, according to the advocacy group Education Voters of Pennsylvania. These programs are different from vouchers, which would give parents state funds directly to use toward a child’s school tuition and other expenses.

Philadelphia families receiving those scholarships represent a small fraction of the nearly 200,000 students who attend Philadelphia public schools, charter schools, or cyber charters, and many parents, educators, and public school advocates argue that the money would be better spent on improving public education in the state.

The tax credit programs have high income maximums, and only one of them is targeted to help students who live in low-performing districts. Many Democratic lawmakers, who largely oppose vouchers, note that these programs are ripe for waste, fraud, and abuse. But the issue is more complicated for some Philly lawmakers who support school choice — and their constituents who use the existing programs.

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’

Kamesha Callands of West Oak Lane still has vivid memories of her time as a public school student: the smell of urine, the falling ceiling tiles, how frequently she was bullied, her behind-the-crowd reading scores.

She was determined to send her daughter, Sabrina Callands-Edmonds, to private school.

Callands, as a School District of Philadelphia student, attended public, charter, and private schools during her own K-12 education. After her charter school closed, she was able to attend a private school through the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia, one of many tax credit-funded programs available across the state. Her mother, Darlene Callands, has been a tireless champion for school choice, including as the founder of the advocacy group African Americans for Educational Opportunity.

Now, Callands’ own daughter is a CSFP grant recipient and attends Our Mother of Consolation School in Chestnut Hill. More than 6,000 Philadelphia children received CSFP grants during the 2023-24 school year, and the maximum grant amount is less than $3,000. Parents are expected to contribute at least $500 per year toward tuition.

Callands still struggled to pay her share of her daughter’s tuition, and left a job she loved at the Department of Human Services for a higher-paying position at Community College of Philadelphia to get by. But she said she would’ve worked multiple jobs if she had to so she could send Sabrina — who excels in a small classroom setting and loves academic rigor — to private school.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Callands said. “I was definitely going to work.”

But the scholarship has been a “huge help,” Callands added. “It would have most definitely been a struggle,” she added, noting that her daughter’s father is in her life but does not financially support them.

Public schoolteacher says public schools were not ‘the option’

For Crystal Best, a School District of Philadelphia fourth-grade teacher, public school was something she considered for her daughter, Cydney Booker. But when the Mount Airy resident needed a pre-K program for her 3-year-old daughter, she enrolled her in the DePaul School in Germantown.


“For me, public school was an option. They had some good things to offer,” said Best, whose daughter is now 14. “However, it was an option. It wasn’t the option.”

Her daughter applied and was accepted to Springside Chestnut Hill in kindergarten, but the state’s available scholarships barely made a dent in the $30,000 tuition at the elite school.

“I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck to say my daughter goes to Penn Charter,” Best added.

Best instead used a tax credit-funded scholarship program to keep her daughter at the DePaul School, where she graduated eighth grade last week as valedictorian. Cydney will attend Little Flower High School in Hunting Park with a full-tuition scholarship next year.

Best said private school has given her daughter smaller class sizes, individualized attention, and the opportunity to learn alongside a group of diverse classmates.

However, as a public educator herself, she wonders why students must attend private schools to get the small class sizes.

“What can we do to offer the things that are offered in private schools in public schools?” she asked of her state lawmakers.

A bus ad and a whim

A random bus ad changed Shante Woodlin’s future.

While getting around Philadelphia, she saw an ad about a program that claimed she could send her child to a private school at a reduced cost. She applied on a whim, just before her daughter, Eden, was set to enter kindergarten.

She and her husband didn’t know much about their local public elementary school — and they wanted to send their daughter to a Christian school, if they could afford to do so. Once Woodlin received the scholarship, she heard about The City School in Fairmount from someone at her church and applied. It has turned out to be a great fit for the family.

The grant program also offered the family flexibility: The scholarship allowed Woodlin to be a stay-at-home mom to Eden and her younger son, Levi, and she has since returned to work and is a counselor at their school. Eden is now 8, and Levi is 5.

The family lives in Northeast Philadelphia and drives 40 minutes or more each day to get their kids to school.

“That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to set them up for their future,” Woodlin said. “I shouldn’t be limited to my neighborhood school or limited to a certain type of school because I live in a certain area code.”

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