This article originally ran in The Legal Intelligencer on August 28, 2015.
The School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission do not have the power to enforce enrollment limits on charter schools, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.
A split five-judge panel ruled Thursday that the SRC does not have the authority to suspend a law prohibiting school districts from capping enrollment levels at charter schools. In Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School v. School District of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth Court upheld the trial court's decision.
"School district's argument presumes that Section 696(i)(3) [of the Public School Code of 1949] gives the SRC broad discretion to suspend the entire school code, with certain limited exceptions. We disagree with this premise," said Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, writing for the majority. "Section 696(i)(3) 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."
President Judge Dan Pellegrini issued a dissenting opinion, in which he said that Section 696(i)(3) "specifically empowers" the SRC to set enrollment caps.
"Section 696(i)(3) is not ambiguous with respect to its application to Section 1723-A(d)," Pellegrini said. "While there may be an instance in which we should rightly determine that the School District of Philadelphia is inappropriately applying this provision beyond its proper scope, this is not that case and Section 696(i)(3) clearly states that it applies 'notwithstanding any other law to the contrary' and is not merely limited to the employment of superintendents or the requirements of Section 1732-A."
Matthew Haverstick of Conrad O'Brien, who represented Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, said, "Once again, the district was told that it doesn't get to make the law. It has to follow the law."
Kevin McKenna of Latsha Davis & McKenna, who represented the other charter school plaintiffs, said not allowing enrollment caps will increase competition and encourage the more successful charter schools.
"The court clearly held that the SRC can't usurp the power of the legislature," McKenna said.
Paul Cianci of Levin Legal Group, who represented the SRC and the school district, did not return a call for comment. The school district also did not return a message seeking comment.
According to Leavitt, five charter schools that were initially chartered around 2000 sought renewal of their charters in 2005. The school district had proposed enrollment caps, which the schools agreed to. However, when the schools again sought to renew the charters around 2010, the district proposed enrollment caps and other limitations. The schools refused to sign the charter renewal proposals.
The charter schools then filed a complaint with the trial court seeking a declaratory judgment and injunction. The district then adopted resolutions authorizing its governing body, the SRC, to limit the charter school enrollment.
After the schools filed motions for summary judgment, the trial court invalidated the district's resolution authorizing the SRC to impose enrollment caps.
Leavitt noted that, in the 2008 decision Foreman v. Chester-Upland School District, the Commonwealth Court determined that a district cannot limit enrollment to charter schools. However, that appeal was discontinued when the General Assembly amended the charter school law in 2008 to prohibit a district from imposing a cap on charter school enrollment without the school's agreement. That amendment was Section 1723-A(d).
According to Leavitt, the district argued the SRC has the authority, under Section 696(i)(3) of the school code, to suspend that section.
However, Leavitt looked to the specificity of both statutes and found that Section 696(i)(3) was a generalized rule that did not supersede the more specific prohibition outlined in Section 1723-A(d). She also noted 2012 amendments made the law, and said the fact that the legislature did not include an exemption to the prohibition against enrollment caps demonstrated the legislature did not intend to give the SRC authority to impose enrollment caps.
"Under school district's overbroad construction of 696(i)(3), the School Reform Commission could close every school in Philadelphia it operates so long as it kept superintendents employed and continued to require charter schools to follow the mandate set forth in Section 1732-A(a)-(c) of the Charter School Law," Leavitt said. "We affirm the trial court's construction of Section 696(i)(3) and Section 1723-A(d) of the school code. School district did not have the power to impose caps on enrollment in the charter schools, and its resolutions to that effect were invalid."
Reprinted with permission from the September 2, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.