Commonwealth Court rules on charter school enrollment cap

Posted: June 08, 2012

The Philadelphia School District has lost another legal battle over capping charter school enrollment.

Commonwealth Court ruled Monday that the state Department of Education was correct when it decided to withhold more than $400,000 in state funding from the district and send the amount to the Freire Charter School in Center City in a dispute over the number of students permitted to attend.

A 2008 state law prohibits districts from capping charter school enrollment unless the school agrees.

When the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved a new five-year operating charter for Freire in 2008, the agreement set a maximum of 440 students.

But before signing that agreement, Freire representatives crossed out the number. The charter included a letter saying the school believed the limit violated the new state law and added: "We respectfully do not agree … to that cap."

The charter high school has 490 students.

The district, however, refused to pay tuition for the additional students who enrolled in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

As is outlined in the charter law, Freire asked the Education Department to deduct the money it was owed from the district's share of state aid and forward the amount to the charter.

The district objected, and the department held an administrative hearing. In late September, Education Secretary Ronald J. Tomalis ruled Freire was entitled to be paid $400,136.

The district appealed, but a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel unanimously upheld the secretary's decision.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the law office had not yet reviewed the decision.

Robert W. O'Donnell, Freire's attorney, said he hoped the ruling ends the dispute.

Kelly Davenport, the school's chief executive, said the charter had reached an agreement with the district that set a new enrollment maximum of 1,000 students. Freire, which opened in 1999, will open a middle school in the fall.

In a similar case, Commonwealth Court in April affirmed the education secretary's finding that the district had illegally capped enrollment at another city charter school.

In the earlier decision, the court upheld the secretary's finding that the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School was entitled to receive $1.3 million from the district. The district had refused to give Palmer the money for 2008-09 and 2009-10 because the school enrolled more students than the 675 specified in its charter agreement.

The Palmer case — watched closely by charter schools — could have broad financial consequences. The district has asked the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

At the same time, the SRC has been trying to negotiate voluntary enrollment limits for the charter schools that are up for renewal this spring.

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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