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February 18, 2016

What high court just did to the way Phila. schools are run

Teacher reassignments. Caps on charters. School closings.


All those weighty matters could be up in the air in Philadelphia schools, after this week's Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that stripped the School Reform Commission of extraordinary powers it had believed it had - and had used - under state law.


Lawyers and close watchers of the School District were still combing through the 18-page decision Wednesday, determining exactly what it means for the school system.


But the scope of the ruling was clear. The SRC on Wednesday called it a "sobering moment."


"Clearly, it's going to require a total reenvisioning of the way in which the SRC is going to manage costs and resources," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "Their quiver has been depleted a bit."


Financially, the decision could be devastating, because of the possibility for rampant, unplanned charter-school growth, already a sensitive issue in a district whose leaders were uncertain, even before the ruling, that they would have enough cash to get through the school year.


Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called the ruling a "double-edged sword." While he was pleased that some of the district's special powers were dulled, he worried "that the district won't be able to control its own budget, its own destiny."


In a 4-2 vote handed down Tuesday, the court declared unconstitutional a provision in state law that permitted the SRC to cancel sections of the Pennsylvania school code. The commission relied heavily on this special power in the last several years to close schools, bypass seniority in teacher assignments, and limit charter school growth.


School officials huddled Wednesday to puzzle over what the ruling will mean, and in a statement, the SRC said that it had acted 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."


One SRC member, Bill Green, said after the ruling that he saw little choice but to follow the order, potentially undoing actions taken under the provision of the law.


Teacher assignments could also be affected significantly. The SRC used the law to bypass seniority after it began rehiring thousands of staffers it had laid off in 2013. It has continued to circumvent seniority since.


Green had said he feared the district might be forced to reassign teachers now, more than halfway through the school year. Jordan dismissed that possibility.


"Absolutely not," he said. "How could you take a teacher away from a student midyear?" Jordan suggested that changes would affect assignments next year.


Cooper said restoration of seniority would further destabilize the school system.


"For people who think they might run the risk of being shifted to another school, that might cause them to look elsewhere," she said. "There's a lot of rolling impact to this."


The impact on school closures is also unclear. The SRC suspended part of the code to amend the timeline required by law to shut dozens of schools in the last several years. Closures are unlikely to be reversed, but steps might have to be taken to remedy the now-improper proceedings.


Perhaps the biggest question is what impact the ruling could have on charter school growth.

The suit that spurred the ruling was brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School. It contended that the part of the state takeover law that allowed the SRC in 2013 to force schools to agree to enrollment caps was unconstitutional.


"This is a tremendous victory for every charter school in Philadelphia," Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. "It sends a clear message that the rights of charter schools, every child in them, and every child on a waiting list to get into a charter school cannot be trampled. No district is above the law."


Robert W. O'Donnell, West Philadelphia Achievement Charter's lawyer, said the ruling could affect numerous renewals that the SRC approved - provided the schools had signed their operating agreements with caps and had been threatened with closure if they didn't.


"I'm not a judge," O'Donnell said. "But my opinion is that anybody who signed up for a charter or a renewal after Aug. 15, 2013, and did so under the threat they were going to be hammered . . . has a really strong claim to rework their charter."


The "hammering" began, O'Donnell said, when the SRC approved an eight-page resolution suspending portions of state law to improve the district's finances and control expenses, including the costs of growing charter enrollment.


As far as charter schools were concerned, the new policy said the commission had flexibility to set the criteria for suspending, not renewing and revoking, schools' operating agreements. It also said the SRC would require charter schools to sign their agreements.


Two months later, a district official sent letters to charter schools across the city threatening to begin revoking agreements of schools that refused to sign their charters because they contained enrollment caps.


West Philadelphia was one of the holdouts. The school did not sign its charter because it capped enrollment at 400 students, and the K-5 school had more than 600.


Lawyer Patricia A. Hennessy said that her take on the ruling was that the district must talk with charter schools about enrollment limits.


"A charter can certainly agree to a cap," she said. "No one disagrees with that. But that presumes there's going to be a dialogue and a discussion." Hennessy represents the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia in another lawsuit over caps.


In the past, she said, the district informed charters what their enrollment maximum would be and told them they had to accept it.


"The charter piece is a giant unknown in a School District budget that's already far short of what's needed to educate the children that are already there," said Cooper. "We've taken away any ability for them to manage their money."


Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, who is representing several plaintiffs suing Pennsylvania over school funding, said the decision lays bare what he believes are deeply flawed laws.


"The underlying piece here is that we have a lot of bad legislatively created policies, and the legislature has said that rather than fix them, we'll let the SRC handle it," Churchill said. "The court has said, 'Well, the SRC can't fix them, the legislature has to fix them.' "