Philadelphia charter school sues public school district

Part 72 of 71 in the series Educating America

By Maura Pennington | Watchdog.org

PHILADELPHIA — A charter school is suing the School District of Philadelphia and its five-member executive School Reform Commission for suspending provisions in the Pennsylvania Public School Code.

The suspensions, the lawsuit says, “jeopardize the very existence of charter schools in Philadelphia.”

The plaintiff, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, has been operating since 2001, the same year that the School Distress Act was amended to grant the SRC its sweeping authority over Philadelphia’s schools.

The lawsuit argues that the SRC’s power to unilaterally suspend regulations is unconstitutional because it violates a charter school’s right to due process.

It became a contentious issue in August, with the approval of SRC-1. The resolution enables the district to force schools to accept enrollment caps and deprives schools the possibility of reimbursement from the state Department of Education if the district fails to make payments for students.

West Philadelphia Achievement is the first to take major action.

“It is certainly the most courageous school,” said Bob O’Donnell, the plaintiff’s lead attorney.

The district has until the end of March to respond on the merits of the lawsuit.

“The district does not comment on active or pending legal cases,” said spokesman Fernando Gallard.

In a nutshell, the conflict is about the cost of charter schools. If a family decides to send their child to a public charter school, the district is responsible for paying about $8,500, the per pupil cost.

Even with the deductions the district is allowed to take, it comes out as a loss. This year the district will spend $25 million more than budgeted because of the number of students in charter schools.

The SRC’s solution is to limit the seats available in charter schools, meaning thousands of students already on waiting lists for charter schools will be pushed into district-run options.

Philadelphia is the largest school district in the state, by far, but the conflict between cash-strapped school boards and charter schools is playing out across the state. Legislation to change some aspects of the state law regarding charter schools, including the reimbursement process, is hung up in Harrisburg.

West Philadelphia Achievement serves about 600 students. The district will pay for only 400 and has told the school to write that limit into their charter or face non-renewal, the lawsuit claims.

When the district crafted a draft Charter School Policy in February that seeks to codify the SRC’s suspensions of Pennsylvania school laws, West Philadelphia Achievement filed its case with the state Supreme Court. It also has filed a petition for an injunction to stop the district from acting on the suspensions of the school code in SRC-1.

The outcome would have repercussions throughout the charter sector.

“Other charter schools could be affected in a whole variety of ways,” said O’Donnell.

Either they would be back under the provisions of the state’s Charter School Law or subject to more action by the SRC, he said.

About 55,000 students are enrolled in Philadelphia’s 86 charter schools. Some 131,000 attend traditional public schools in the district.

Contact Maura Pennington at mpennington@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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