School choice advocates won a signal victory this week when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the Philadelphia School Reform Commission may not impose enrollment caps on charter schools.
The landmark 4-2 decision supported West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which has been fighting the School District of Philadelphia and the SRC over enrollment caps since 2011. The SRC, which has controlled city schools since a 2001 state takeover, has used special powers granted by Harrisburg to overturn elements of the public school code as a means to achieving cost savings.
The court decision determined those special powers were unconstitutional. Its decision severely limits the SRC’s power not only in terms of limiting charter school growth, but on a number of other financial issues facing the School District of Philadelphia.
“This is a tremendous victory for every charter school in Philadelphia.” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools (PCPCS). “It sends a clear message that the rights of charter schools, every child in them, and every child on a waiting list to get into a charter school cannot be trampled. No district is above the law.”
The SRC is the sole charter school authorizer in the city. As the court decision was handed down, it approved three new schools, all with enrollment caps. It remains to be seen if those numbers, which created more than 2,000 new charter seats, will now be expanded.
In June 2014, West Philadelphia Achievement joined in an amicus brief by PCPCS and MaST Community Charter School and filed suit in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, challenging the SRC’s enrollment caps and threats to revoke the charters of any school that refused to comply with the cap. The suit also challenged the district and SRC’s actions to deny the ability of charter schools to appeal a nonrenewal or revocation to the Charter Appeals Board and add new criteria for renewals that did not exist in the Charter School Law.
Oral arguments were heard in September 2014. The decision was announced this week.
The court decision was celebrated on both sides of Philadelphia’s contentious school choice debate because the ruling also strips the SRC of the power it used to make decisions on school closings and matters related to the teachers’ contract, which expired three years ago.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan called it a “double-edged sword for our schoolchildren” in a statement.
“Though it seems to place much-needed checks and balances on an SRC run amok, it also has the potential to put our school district finances in an extremely precarious position,” he said.
School choice opponents like the PFT argue charter schools sap resources from traditional district schools. The SRC had used enrollment caps as a means to curb charter school costs, but they also limited the number of seats in schools that are in high demand. There are more than 20,000 names on waiting lists to get into Philly charter schools.
This week, the popular MaST Charter School, which boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, held its annual lottery. From more than 8,000 applications, only 99 new students could be admitted.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling on our school’s case is a victory for all Philadelphia families whose children most need to exercise their right to choose a public school that best meets their academic, social and personal needs,” said Dr. Stacy R. Gill-Phillips, founder and CEO of the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School.
The SRC is unpopular in Philadelphia, where a poll last year revealed only 11 percent of respondents want it to remain in place. It has been plagued by poor public perception stemming from the fact that its five commissioners are not elected; two are appointed by the mayor and three by the governor. The agency has been accused by city residents and education advocates of snuffing First Amendment rights, skirting transparency laws and running the city schools without much accountability.
“This is a sobering moment,” the SRC said in a statement. “The SRC has acted with an eye towards ensuring high quality options for students in a managed way. The SRC was charged with operating a system in deep financial and educational distress within the specific authority granted by the General Assembly. By allowing principals to manage their workforce, ensuring the quality of charter seats, and managing charter growth, the SRC worked to fulfill its fundamental mission of getting the School District out of financial and educational distress.”