By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in a case challenging the Philadelphia School District’s decision to place limits on charter school enrollment.
The School Reform Commission, a state-appointed body that runs the school district, set the enrollment limits in August 2013 as part of a series of cost-saving measures that required the suspension of certain parts of the state’s public school code. The West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School filed a lawsuit in March challenging the enrollment limits as an unconstitutional violation of the school’s due process rights.
The case is being closely watched by charter school advocates across the state and could set important precedents for how the Philadelphia School District deals with the growth of charter schools within its borders.
In a brief submitted to the court in support of WPACES, attorneys for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools say the SRC’s decision to impose enrollment limits on charters is an unprecedented political overreach.
The new rules adopted by the SRC “can have no other end result but to dismantle the Charter School Law and weaken the structure of the Philadelphia School District, threaten the survival of all Philadelphia charter schools and abolish educational options for all Philadelphia parents and children,” they argued.
The SRC declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
Under the new rules adopted by the SRC in 2013, the district said it would pay for only 400 students to attend WPACES. The school had an enrollment of more than 600 students last year.
State law says school districts must pay for students who choose to attend a charter school instead of their assigned local school. In Philadelphia, about $8,500 follows each student who moves to a charter school.
Lots of them have been doing it. There are more than 65,000 students enrolled in Philadelphia charter schools, compared to about 130,000 who remain in the traditional public school system.
The school district says charter school payments exceeded expectations by more than $25 million during the 2013-14 school year, compounding the district’s budget woes.
Philadelphia spends roughly $15,000 per student in its public school system. Charter advocates say the district should be able to save money when students move to charter schools since it costs the district only $8,500 to send them there.
But district officials say that’s not the case.
“Historically, the District has been able to shed only about $4,500 in costs per student, meaning that the net loss to the District when the student transfers is $5,500, a huge loss,” SRC member Joseph Dworetzky told The Notebook, a Philadelphia education blog, last year.
In an effort to cut costs, the district imposed the enrollment limits last year. But that left WPACES and other charter schools without enough money in their own budgets.
The SRC has also required charter schools to write enrollment limits into their charters or face nonrenewal.
The case before the Supreme Court says those actions are a violation of state law and students’ constitutional rights. If the court sides with the SRC, it could mean more restrictions are coming.
“The implications are potentially huge because it deals with the constitutionality of the SRC to suspend rules for charter schools,” Bob O’Donnell, lead attorney for WPACES, told PA Independent in May.
Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.