Anti-school choice activists are twisting a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in an attempt to bolster their arguments against charter schools. A lawyer who helped argue and win the case says they are missing the point entirely.
When the court ruled in favor of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School last week in a lawsuit seeking to block the School Reform Commission from unilaterally capping enrollment, the decision was blasted by anti-choice groups claiming it would lead to out-of control growth in the charter sector and, eventually, to the financial ruin of school districts.
“The aftershocks of this week’s stunning decision on the Philadelphia SRC could very well be felt in school districts across the commonwealth. Brace yourselves,” warned the non-profit Public Citizens for Children + Youth, a public school advocacy group, in a blog post.
In a statement, Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director and an advisor to Mayor Jim Kenney, also painted a grim picture.
“Now, like all districts, Philadelphia must permit charter enrollment to rise unpredictably year-over-year, making sound fiscal management an impossibility,” she said. “As a result, preemptive cuts and harmful reductions in the number of teachers and support staff in district-run schools will become inevitable.”
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said that “now more than ever, the PFT is reiterating its call for a moratorium on new charter schools because Philadelphia simply cannot afford any more conversions.”
But according to Jeffrey Stacey, a lawyer with O’Donnell Associates, the firm that successfully argued the case for West Philadelphia Achievement, those statements and even some media reports have missed the point.
According to laws governing Pennsylvania charter schools, enrollment numbers must be agreed upon by both the school and the district. The Supreme Court decision forces those negotiations to take place.
“The Supreme Court was not asked if unrestricted charter growth should be permitted,” Stacey told Watchdog. “They were asked if this provision, which gives a school Reform Commission the power to, at will, suspend portions of the Public School Code — which has more than 60 articles and governs everything from public bidding to charter schools to when you need to hang the American flag in your classroom — and all of the regulations the state Board of Education has passed.”
The court decision means that Philadelphia is now back in the same position as the other 500 school districts in the commonwealth in terms of its relationship to charter schools.
“It does not mean if you want to open a new charter school in Philadelphia, you can have as many students as you want,” Stacey said. “It just opens the door to negotiations between the district and charter schools to determine enrollment.”
The Supreme Court ruled the SRC may not suspend the school law to establish charter enrollment caps or anything else. That had been a power granted to the SRC, which has controlled Philly school since a 2001 state takeover, by the General Assembly. It has been the SRC’s responsibility to repair the district’s bleeding finances, and it had used its special powers as a means to achieve certain cost savings.
Stacey said there had been no guidance to how, why or when the school district was supposed to suspend the law.
“We said that doesn’t seem constitutional,” he said. “It just seemed like the legislature gave away a tremendous amount of power without saying how that power should be used.”
As such, prior to last week’s 4-2 Supreme Court decision, the SRC had the power to unilaterally suspend school law and set an enrollment cap for charters. It was the SRC’s way or the highway. Failure to comply with its directives had previously been grounds for non-renewal or revocation of charters, which was the case in 2013 when former Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn sent a letter to non-compliant charter schools, including West Philadelphia Achievement.
That letter triggered the lawsuit.
“If the SRC is reacting in a common sense, real-world view of this, it’s going to say if it is going to seek enrollment limitations, it’s going to have to do it with an agreement with the charter schools,” Stacey said. “So let’s sit down and come up with a reasonable number, because you need to have a charter agreement in place to be able to operate.”