This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a decision that could have massive repercussions for Philadelphia schools, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday declared unconstitutional the provision in state law granting the School Reform Commission extraordinary powers to cancel provisions of the state school code.
The decision came in a case involving West Philadelphia Achievement Charter School, which since 2011 has been challenging the District’s efforts to limit its enrollment to 400 students. Charter schools are not subject to District-imposed enrollment caps, absent the charter school’s consent, according to the school code.
But the potential impact of the court’s action extends far beyond caps on charter enrollment.
The ruling is a severe blow to the SRC, which has frequently sought to suspend the school code in an effort to limit charter expansion, expedite school closings, and cancel provisions in the teachers’ contract –including built-in raises for years of service and seniority protections in calling back laid-off employees.
In essence, the court said that the General Assembly overstepped its bounds and was too open-ended in granting the SRC these powers in 2001.
"The Legislature gave the SRC what amounts to carte blanche powers to suspend virtually any combination of provisions of the School Code – a statute covering a broad range of topics," the ruling said. It said that prior court decisions "have never deemed such an unconstrained grant of authority to be constitutionally valid."
In the words of the ruling, any actions taken under the provision – Section 696(i)(3) of the School code – are "null and void, and Respondents [the District and SRC] are permanently enjoined from taking further action under the authority it confers."
The vote was 4-2, with bipartisan support for the majority opinion. One of the court’s seven justices did not participate. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, a Republican. Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, wrote a dissenting opinion.
Baer argued that the General Assembly did not unconstitutionally delegate its own legislative power to the SRC, as the majority held, but "rather delegates the authority to suspend legislation that affects the economic stability of a district in financial distress."
When the legislature was establishing the mechanisms for a state takeover of the Philadelphia system, it gave the governing body unusual powers that would allow it to waive any state regulations governing schools. The goal was to free the District to impose reforms and bring it into financial solvency.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan called the ruling a "double-edged sword.
"Though it seems to place much-needed checks and balances on an SRC run amok, it also has the potential to put our school district finances in an extremely precarious position," he wrote in a statement. Jordan reiterated the PFT’s stance that the SRC put a stop to any charter expansion, including the conversions of District schools.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that District officials would not have a reaction until they could read the entire opinion.
But SRC member Bill Green told Newsworks that the result could be "disastrous."
"This kind of pulls the rug out from many of policies we have taken to try to improve the quality of education for children in Philadelphia," said Green. "It will cost the district probably millions, if not tens of millions of dollars."
Green worried that the decision would require a mass "reshuffling of all teachers in the district this year" in an attempt to re-impose seniority.
"The consequences are not clear to me, but it could be disastrous for children," he said.
He also worried about "unfettered" expansion of subpar charter operators that would take resources from the District without providing parents with better options.
Public interest attorney Michael Churchill said that the ruling means that the "Supreme Court has put an end to the legislature’s attempt to fix the school district’s financial problems by giving virtually unlimited authority to the SRC to do whatever it thought useful. With that approach now gone, the legislature must come to grips with how its own actions are making Philadelphia’s finances worse."
He cited the lack of adequate state funding, the heavy impact of recent budget cuts on Philadelphia, and the decision to allow unrestrained charter growth regardless of the financial impact on district-run schools as among its poor policy choices.
Additional reporting by Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks.