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More charters file suits on enrollment caps

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The city’s charter community, citing long waiting lists and an inability to plan, is ratcheting up pressure on the School District to approve schools’ expansion plans.

Six of the 11 charters that received renewals this year have each sued the District, claiming that it is illegally imposing caps on their growth. And at least eight of the 11 have refused to sign their charter renewals because they include enrollment caps the charter operators say they never agreed to.

“Expansion requests by these schools have been denied or deferred by the SDP, in direct violation of commonwealth charter law,” said a statement released by the group. “The SDP is insisting on charter renewal ‘contracts’ that enforce caps and include other provisions that have been ruled by courts to be illegal.” The statement was issued by Carey Dearnley, a spokesperson for an association of local charter schools called Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, a number of whose members are among those schools suing.

Dearnley said the schools that have filed suit are:

Palmer, in addition to seeking expansion, wants payment for students the school has already added.

Freire Charter, which was not one of the 11 schools renewed this year, also has a lawsuit pending over enrollment caps, making seven lawsuits in total.

In addition, Independence Charter and Northwood Academy have notified District officials they will not sign the renewal agreement as is.

The other three charters that were renewed this year are Mastery-Lenfest, Mastery-Thomas, and People for People.

While approving renewals, the School Reform Commission has tabled charter expansion requests. In the past, officials have cited financial concerns and said they believe they had the right to manage charter school growth to meet larger District and student needs.

The District did not immediately respond to a request for reaction to the increasing number of lawsuits. The District issued a statement that talks about parental choice and accountability for charters, but doesn’t directly address the lawsuits or expansion issue. It says, in part:

"Recognizing the importance of charters in the larger network of available educational choices, the District sponsored two task forces, which brought together parents, community members, charter operators and District staff to discuss issues such as enrollment, performance standards and policy changes. In addition, the District participates in a number of ongoing conversations with charter operators, individually and in groups, to work through what is an emergent field.

The District stands firm in its belief that charter schools must be held to reasonable standards of academic performance in the delivery of education programs in similar ways as traditional public schools. As District-operated schools have the school performance index, and accountability reports on school safety and fiscal spending, parents should be able to expect comparable information from charter schools."

The charter community and school officials have long been at odds over whether charters save or cost the District money. The District has said it has 45,000 "empty seats" in its schools, partly a result of an exodus to charters. It is in the process of compiling a new master plan to address the space issue, which will likely result in school closings. District officials say that when they pay a per-pupil fee for added slots in charter schools, there are no immediate, equivalent savings in terms of lowered costs stemming from reduced enrollment in District schools.

Charter schools most recently complained to the School Reform Commission on December 8 about hardship caused by lack of action on expansion plans.

Five schools – Byers, Green Woods, Performing Arts, First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy and New Foundations – brought students to plead their case, who waited several hours to speak. There was no reaction from SRC members or Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The District subsequently issued a statement saying a vote on the expansion requests would take place in February.

Citing financial concerns, the School Reform Commission has also not approved or even accepted any new charter school applications since authorizing six new charters early in 2009.

The complaints filed by the schools over renewals claim that the charter law prohibits districts from imposing an enrollment cap – even Philadelphia, which was taken over by the state in 2001 – and cites a decision involving a charter in the Chester-Upland School District. Chester-Upland is also a distressed district, but governed under a different law.

In case there is any doubt, State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, plans to amend the charter law to allow expansion and the creation of new charters.

The charters are acting as a new Republican administration more sympathetic to charters and vouchers is poised to take office, and as the District looks at a deficit that could approach half a billion dollars.

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