This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has delivered a major blow to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in a decision that’s poised to have far-reaching effects on public schools in the city.
The SRC has been assuming that it has special powers to suspend parts of the school code and charter law based on the legislation that created the state-takeover body in 2001.
In a 4-2 bipartisan decision, the state’s highest court said Tuesday that that section of the legislation is unconstitutional and that the SRC has been overreaching its authority.
In essence, the court lay fault at the feet of state lawmakers for not defining powers more specifically.
“There really has to be some definition of that power. You just can’t grant the power to suspend or eliminate statute,” said attorney Robert O’Donnell, who argued the case against the SRC for West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School.
Agreeing with O’Donnell, Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Debra McCloskey Todd, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht.
State lawmakers wrote the provision broadly in an attempt to give the school system extra power to deal with – and hopefully overcome – its chronic state of fiscal distress.
The District and the SRC say they will adhere to the court’s decision, but lamented the consequences, calling it “a sobering moment.”
“The SRC was charged with operating a system in deep financial and educational distress within the specific authority granted by the General Assembly,” spokesman Fernando Gallard wrote in a statement. “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.”
Gallard alluded to the four key decisions in which the SRC exercised its interpretation of its presumed special powers.
It suspended provisions in either the school code or charter law:
- To ignore the requirement that mandates that school staffing decisions are made in seniority order;
- To establish enrollment caps for charter schools that had not agreed to a limit;
- To strengthen the criteria for opening new charters and to close underperformers more quickly;
- To shorten the time between public hearings and the final SRC vote on school closings.
The court’s decision voids and reverses the SRC’s actions.
“Now they have to do it in accordance with the law, as opposed to in accordance with whatever policy they would decide on,” said O’Donnell.
Charter school enthusiasts celebrated the ruling.
“We think it is a correct and long-overdue decision,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Philadelphia Coalition for Public Charter Schools. “There hasn’t been a more impactful decision than this one.”
Whether that impact is good or bad will be hotly debated. Charter advocates say it will lessen the number of city families stuck on charter waitlists.