Six more Phila. charter schools sue over enrollment caps

Posted: January 13, 2011

Six more charter schools are challenging the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's practice of setting enrollment maximums in schools' operating charters.

In documents filed in Common Pleas Court, the schools allege that the SRC has violated the state's charter-school law by limiting the number of students their schools can enroll.

With the school district already facing a $430 million spending gap in the next fiscal year, the issue of expanding charter-school enrollment is a grave concern.

SRC members have told charter officials that they must balance the needs of charters with the district's finances. In the last fiscal year, the district spent $344 million of its $3.2 billion budget for 67 charter schools with 34,000 students.

Shana Kemp, the district's deputy of media relations, said she could not comment on the lawsuits.

"The charter-school community in Philadelphia is a strong and vibrant one," she said in a statement Wednesday night. "Together with traditional public schools operated by the School District of Philadelphia, charters provide parents and their children with a broad range of choices for elementary and secondary education."

Charters are independently operated schools that are paid for by taxpayers under a formula contained in state law that is based on how much a school district spends on its students. In Philadelphia, the district pays charters $8,708 for each student in regular classes and $18,883 for each student receiving special-education services.

In June, the SRC voted to allow charters to add 1,042 seats in the current academic year at a cost of $7.3 million for this academic year.

Michael J. Masch, chief business officer, said at that time that if the commission had approved all 9,262 additional seats the charters had requested over the next five years, the cost would have totaled $266 million.

Although state law prohibits districts from imposing caps on charter enrollment, the district has maintained that its enrollment limits are permitted because they are contained in written agreements the charter schools have signed.

Five of the latest suits were filed Dec. 27 by charter schools that have refused to sign the charter-school renewals the SRC approved in June because the documents include enrollment maximums. The charters are Richard Allen Preparatory, Russell Byers, Wakisha, Folk Arts, and Delaware Valley Charter High School.

The schools allege that the SRC is unilaterally seeking to limit their enrollments without giving them an opportunity to challenge the decisions. The schools also charge that the SRC is seeking to impose a series of conditions on their schools' operations that are beyond the scope of the charter law.

A statement by the charter schools' top administrators said their requests to enroll more students and add grades had been denied or deferred by the SRC.

The administrators said their schools won renewal "based on a rigorous review of their academic, financial, and safety records. All of these schools have high levels of parental and student satisfaction and face increasing demands and long waiting lists."

A sixth school, Freire Charter School, filed a suit Nov. 19 challenging its cap.

Kemp said the district "continues efforts to ensure accountability for charter schools to provide high-quality education. . . . As authorizers of charter schools in Philadelphia, our agreements are intended, and are structured, to ensure that public resources are used to provide students and parents with outstanding education choices."

The charters recently filing suit have taken up the challenge to enrollment caps that began in September when the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School sued the district in Commonwealth Court. The Palmer school, whose main campus is at 910 N. Sixth St., charges that the district improperly capped its enrollment at 675 and then refused to pay for the education of additional students.

State Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the education committee, has filed court documents in support of the Palmer school's position. Piccola was one of the authors of the state's 1997 charter-school law.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education has started hearings on the Palmer school's claims that the district owes it $1.7 million for additional students the school has educated.

Walter D. Palmer filed another suit in Common Pleas Court in December, too.

The six other charters that recently filed suit have not enrolled any additional students, charter officials said.

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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