This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated | Feb. 18
Pennsylvania’s highest court blunted the School Reform Commission’s authority on Tuesday, declaring unconstitutional a portion of state law granting the governing body its use of special powers in managing the distressed Philadelphia school district.
As sudden news of the decision rippled through education quarters, many were shocked by the potentially far-reaching and double-edged implications of the ruling. With the fallout still being weighed, and owing perhaps to the uncertain and complicated impact of the decision, few prominent figures in education have released official comment.
The spokesperson for the School District, Fernando Gallard, deferred comment at last night’s special SRC meeting, where the commissioners voted to approve three new charter school applications. (The SRC has released a statement, calling the ruling a "sobering moment"; see below).
A few people, however, did offer early reactions. We are posting their statements and comments here and will update the post with new reactions as they roll in.
- Bill Green, SRC commissioner
- Michael Churchill, attorney for Public Interest Law Center
- Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president
- West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, plaintiff
- Michael Masch, former District chief financial officer, Howard University CFO
- Helen Gym, councilwoman at-large
- Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center-PA
- School Reform Commission
- Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth
School Reform Commissioner Bill Green, after the SRC meeting, called the decision a potential disaster, citing the impact it could have on teacher reshuffling, the expansion of poor-performing charter schools, and the further loss of millions of dollars. From Kevin McCorry’s NewsWorks story on the meeting:
“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.
Green also lamented the possible “unfettered expansion” of the city’s worst charter operators.
“It takes resources from the District,” he said, “but it also puts families and children who think they are getting a better option — who are not — in a much worse situation than in their District schools.”
Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center said the ruling places responsibility for the School District’s dire financial situation back with the state legislature.
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. Controlling unrestrained growth of charters must be close to the top of the list, not far behind providing adequate state funding. Because of the legislature, 40 percent of the outstanding Corbett cuts to education are to Philadelphia, although it receives less than 18 percent of state funding. The Philadelphia School District’s financial problems arise primarily from the legislature’s own actions and poor policy choices.
In a statement released last night, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan acknowledged the "double-edged" nature of the order, affirming the need to limit the power of an SRC "run amok," while decrying the fact that an already precarious financial situation will worsen with unchecked charter growth.
The PA Supreme Court today issued a ruling that has huge ramifications for Philadelphia’s educators, the PFT and our schoolchildren, particularly in light of the School Reform Commission’s irrational decision to approve three more charter schools.
The SRC routinely cites PA Act 696 as the rationale for the adverse actions they have taken against PFT members and public schools over the past few years, including school closings and the improper layoff and restoration of school counselors. Today’s ruling by the Court declares that Act 696 is unconstitutional, and the SRC CANNOT waive school code provisions it finds inconvenient.
On the other other hand, the ruling also removes enrollment caps from charter schools. This means that the three new charter schools approved by the SRC will place even more of a strain on the District’s already overstretched budget. Now more than ever, the PFT is reiterating its call for a moratorium on new charter schools because Philadelphia simply cannot afford any more conversions.
With tonight’s vote, the SRC has taken another step toward bankrupting the school district. The irresponsibility of the SRC’s actions provides more evidence that body needs to be abolished in favor of local control of our children’s schools.
The ruling from the PA Supreme Court is indeed a "double-edged sword" for our schoolchildren. 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.
"Although litigants in this case are West Philadelphia Achievement Charter, the School District and the SRC, the Court’s ruling has a significant impact on the PFT. Our attorneys are currently reviewing the ruling to determine how it will impact our members."
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, released a statement on Wednesday, calling the ruling "a major victory that the Court has upheld Charter School Law to ensure we do not go backwards, but continue to move forward in giving our most vulnerable families a choice in public school education."
On Tuesday, February 16, in the case of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School v. SRC, the Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that the legislature cannot constitutionally give away its power to suspend laws. The case, which was originally argued in September of 2014, awaited a decision for over a year. WPACES represented by O’Donnell Associates argued in front of the Supreme Court that the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia unlawfully revoked parts of the school code bill in relation to the number of students in charter schools and forced charter operators within the city of Philadelphia to sign their own charter agreement.
"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling on our school’s case is a victory for all Philadelphia families whose children most need to exercise their right to choose a public school that best meets their academic, social, and personal needs,” said Dr. Stacy R. Gill-Phillips, founder and CEO of the West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School. “Nearly two decades ago, for the first time in the United States history, a law was written to allow choice in public schools. It is a major victory that the Court has upheld Charter School Law to ensure we do not go backwards, but continue to move forward in giving our most vulnerable families a choice in public school education. We are grateful to both the Supreme Court and God Almighty for protecting these children.”
The suit challenged the SRC’s authority to impose enrollment caps on individual schools, revoke the charters of schools who go over their enrollment cap and add amendments that did not allow charters to appeal a denial of their charter at the state level. The SRC is now permanently barred from using their legal authority to suspend laws in the School District of Philadelphia and all charter schools under their jurisdiction.
“We are very pleased with the outcome and that the court recognized the importance of this issue and found our argument persuasive,” said Robert O’Donnell who represented the charter school and argued the case before the court.
By taking a stand for all independent public charter schools in the district, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School has made it possible for families to continue to have high-quality tuition-free choices to educate their children in their own neighborhoods.
Charter schools must still be held accountable to parents and the district authorizer to ensure that they meet financial and academic standards in order to provide the learning opportunities Philadelphia students deserve. However, in its decision, the court has made clear that everyone has to play by the rules. The School Reform Commission and School District of Philadelphia are not above the law. It is not within the scope of the SRC’s authority to invent new rules or suspend standing laws at whim.
The assessment by former School District chief financial officer Michael Masch was pessimistic as well. Masch was one of the first SRC members and before that he was on the Board of Education.
What a disaster. If the SRC hadn’t tried to overreach so much, this case might never have been heard. I was one of the founding members of the SRC and I never believed that the SRC had powers as wide-ranging as they were claiming, but I truly did not expect such a sweeping negative ruling.
New legislation is clearly needed, or else unrestrained charter growth will bankrupt the SDP. But it is difficult to imagine any constructive legislation receiving bipartisan support in Harrisburg in the current extraordinarily bitter political climate.
Very worrying and depressing. As a Philadelphian and a Pennsylvanian I have rarely been this pessimistic about things changing for the better. So much good work by so many to make Philly a vibrant city — but if the schools continue to suffer, it could all be for naught.
Councilwoman Helen Gym said court’s decision makes clear that the SRC should be dissolved and that the General Assembly must fix the state’s school funding system and charter school law.
Yesterday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling makes unmistakably clear that the School Reform Commission and Pennsylvania’s fifteen-year experiment in state takeover have been a disaster for students and schools.
Since its formation, and particularly in recent years, the SRC has used its unprecedented powers to impose new rules that allow schools to operate without essential staff, slash programming, close schools, and violate key sections of the teachers’ contract. The SRC has also continued to recklessly expand the charter sector by approving new charters and ceding control of dozens of schools to private operators. Charter payments have rapidly become the District’s largest cost burden while underfunded, understaffed neighborhood schools languish in disrepair.
After years of administrative overreach and failed experimentation, with no end in sight to the "fiscal distress" the Commission was supposed to alleviate, the time has come to dissolve the School Reform Commission and finally give control of Philadelphia’s schools to Philadelphians.
Furthermore, with the Court’s declaration that Harrisburg may not abdicate its responsibilities to the SRC, it has become urgently necessary for the General Assembly to fix the state’s broken system for funding and regulating public education. Specifically the legislature must address its deeply-flawed, nineteen-year old charter law, which prevents school districts from exercising full control over charter school authorization and growth. Without action, Philadelphia’s school district will not remain solvent and is at grave risk.
Both in Philadelphia and across the state, it is abundantly clear that our system of public schools, so many of which are struggling to provide the most basic services to students, cannot be called "thorough and efficient." It is now up to the Courts to weigh in on the need for a fair funding system, and to ensure that the legislature does its job.
From Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center-PA:
The Education Law Center was not a party to the litigation, but the case highlights the dire financial implications of the absence of adequate, stable funding for students in Philadelphia’s public schools. Students have already endured lay-offs of thousands of their teachers and support staff and seen critical programs slashed in response to drastic state funding cuts.
In the absence of an adequately funded formula that accounts for stranded costs to districts due to charter expansion – and in the absence of larger systemic charter funding reforms – this decision substantially destabilizes the district’s long-term finances.
“The court’s decision is just the latest in a long line of developments showing that Pennsylvania’s education funding system is fundamentally flawed and fails to provide our children with the resources they need to meet the Commonwealth’s own academic standards and benchmarks.
The decision also stands for the proposition that the court can direct the legislature to undertake its constitutional duties. Just as the non-delegation clause is enforceable by the high court, the Education Clause of our state Constitution is also subject to judicial review. In our school funding case, now pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, we are asking the Court to enforce the Legislature’s duty to support a thorough and efficient system of public education and the right to equal protection under the law. In the absence of such a directive, the General Assembly has – and will – continue to abdicate its constitutional obligations.
“The parents, school districts and statewide organizations, represented by ELC and our partners, are asking the Court to enforce the Legislature’s duties, just as it enforced the non-delegation clause in the case decided yesterday. In the meantime, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly must also step up to the plate and approve adequate funding now to serve the needs of students. We must provide the sustained investment our children need to succeed – regardless of their ZIP code, income or race.”
The School Reform Commission, in its official statement, called the court’s ruling a "sobering moment," saying it "used its express powers under the law in good faith to take actions consistent with our duty to secure financial stability for the School District and provide high quality educational opportunities for all students.”
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the clear power given to the SRC by the General Assembly to suspend school code requirements is unconstitutional. In recent years, the School Reform Commission used its express powers under the law in good faith to take actions consistent with our duty to secure financial stability for the School District and provide high quality educational opportunities for all students. For example:
To provide principals and school communities with the ability to manage their workforce and choose their teachers during a time of limited resources, the SRC suspended the school code requirement that limits the reasons for the layoff of professional employees and requires recall by seniority order.
To responsibly manage the unimpeded growth of charter enrollment, the SRC suspended a provision of the Charter School Law to allow the SRC to establish enrollment caps for charter schools that had not agreed to an enrollment cap.
To allow the SRC to close poor-performing charter schools and ensure quality in the charter sector, the SRC suspended a provision of the Charter School Law, which gave the SRC the ability to require charter schools not in corrective action status to meet specific student academic targets.
To provide school communities with an earlier decision around school closures the SRC suspended a section of the public school code requiring a specific timeframe between public hearings and the final SRC vote on school closings.
This is a sobering moment. The SRC has acted with an eye towards ensuring high quality options for students in a managed way. The SRC was charged with operating a system in deep financial and educational distress within the specific authority granted by the General Assembly. By allowing principals to manage their workforce, ensuring the quality of charter seats, and managing charter growth, the SRC worked to fulfill its fundamental mission of getting the School District out of financial and educational distress.”
Donna Cooper, head of PCCY, released the following statement:
The State Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Philadelphia School Reform Commission morphs the powers of SRC in ways that makes them more consistent with the powers of the 500 other school boards across the state (with the great exception of local taxing power).
Now, like all districts, Philadelphia must permit charter enrollment to rise unpredictably year-over-year making sound fiscal management an impossibility. As a result, preemptive cuts and harmful reductions in the number of teachers and support staff in district-run schools will become inevitable.
Regardless of the nature of a school district’s governance structure in Pennsylvania, the court’s decision makes clear that without substantial changes in state law, any district governing body will be forced to make devastating choices for children. In fact, the real conclusion from this decision is that the ball is back in the legislature’s court.
The appropriate next step is for the state legislature to remedy the dangerous consequences of this court decision by passing laws that ensure fiscally sound district budgeting practices enabled by reforms to charter oversight.
Further, by making this decision, the court has sent a clear signal that it understands it is the legislature’s responsibility to ensure the proper operation of our school districts. That responsibility requires the legislature to put the funds in place and adopt a formula that guarantees every student in every school district can receive a quality public education.