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Lower court sides with charters and against School District in enrollment cap dispute

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

The School Reform Commission suffered another legal setback Monday in its effort to impose enrollment caps on charter schools and take other actions that run counter to the Pennsylvania School Code.

In a ruling involving cases brought by five charter schools and later consolidated, Judge Gary S. Glazer of the Court of Common Pleas ruled that the SRC did not have the power to unilaterally suspend some sections of the school code involving charter schools.

The SRC has repeatedly sought to suspend portions of the school code regarding charter growth and the teachers’ contract, partly as a way to keep the District solvent during a time when revenues have not kept up with expenses.

"A school district cannot condition the grant or renewal of a charter on compliance with provisions that violate the Charter School Law," Glazer wrote.

The ruling comes as the District plans to adopt a revised charter policy on Thursday that sets many conditions for charter schools. It also plans to renew five with enrollment caps specified.

In addition, it plans to vote Thursday on a resolution to revoke the charter of Walter Palmer Leadership Learning Partners, which has been most aggressive in defying the enrollment caps imposed by the District, both in court and in seeking direct payments from the state for students over the cap. While charter founder Walter Palmer alleges that the SRC’s move to close his school is in retaliation for this activism, the SRC cites academic shortcomings and poor financial practices as the main reasons for revoking the school’s charter.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is likely to decide the question. This case can be appealed, and in another lawsuit, the District has asked the Supreme Court directly to clarify whether the SRC’s special powers — granted by the law giving the state control over the District — allow it to unilaterally impose contract terms on the teachers’ union.

In the Common Pleas ruling, Glazer says that takeover law "does not give the SRC unbridled power to overrule the law-making authority of the General Assembly and suspend applicable statutes … based solely on its declaration of necessity."

Glazer ruled that the legal authority given by Pennsylvania to a distressed school district cannot be used to trump a more recent law enacted by the state legislature that bars school districts from imposing caps.

In a statement, the School District said that the ruling does not prevent any of its planned actions regarding charter schools.

"We are in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our alternatives for responding to this decision," the stateement said.

The ruling "does not in any way preclude the District from moving forward with recommendations and actions that are in the best interests of students and families, including those that will be made at the upcoming School Reform Commission meeting."

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