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Commonwealth Court rules District can’t force charters to cap enrollment

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

Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday that the School Reform Commission lacks the power to impose enrollment caps on charter schools, a decision that hands a big victory to charters seeking to limit school districts’ control of them.

The ruling throws another wrinkle into the School District of Philadelphia’s ongoing effort to remain solvent. The District has maintained that unrestrained charter growth depletes its own limited funding and doesn’t allow it to plan for its own schools..

The case involves five charter schools – including Richard Allen Preparatory, Delaware Valley, and Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures – that had agreed to caps in 2005 but objected to the caps when their agreements came up for renewal in 2010 and refused to sign new charter agreements to abide by the caps. That prompted the School Reform Commission to pass resolutions suspending the charter school law and allowing it to limit enrollment at the schools.

The case hinges on whether the law establishing the SRC and giving it broad powers to restore the District to financial health allows it to ignore another state law prohibiting enrollment caps on charters. A lower court ruled that it doesn’t have that authority; in a 4-1 decision, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the lower court that the District cannot cap enrollment at charters.

The court’s majority ruled that the state takeover law "does not give the School Reform Commission carte blanche to rewrite the terms of public school education in Philadelphia for schools it operates and for charter schools operated by a board of trustees."

The ruling does acknowledge that "where enrollment is capped by agreement of the charter school, funding in excess of that number may be withheld by a school district." Most Philadelphia charter schools have enrollment caps written into their agreements.

Two of the five charters filing the original complaint went out of business last school year – Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners and Wakisha.

The District is reviewing its legal options in connection with this case.

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