Charter schools blast SRC's move to limit enrollment

Posted: November 21, 2012

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools on Monday blasted the Philadelphia School Reform Commission's decision to suspend part of state law so it could control charter-school growth, and said the move could trigger legal challenges.

The coalition said in a statement that it was "blindsided, shocked, and dismayed" by the SRC's vote Thursday night to suspend a section of the school code that prevents districts from capping charter enrollment.

In an interview Monday, Bob Fayfich, the coalition's executive director, said the item was added to the agenda at the last minute and voted on without public comment.

He said Lawrence Jones, coalition president, spotted the item when he attended the meeting. "That's the first indication we had that anything was being discussed," Fayfich said.

He said the coalition would begin discussing how to respond to the SRC vote at a special board meeting scheduled to talk about legislative issues later Monday.

"As a school district in 'financial distress,' the SRC has been given the authority to suspend portions of the school code and regulations," SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said in a response Monday evening. "The SRC has done so in the past in a variety of circumstances and will have to continue to do so in the future, when necessary for the sustainability of public education."

The suspension does not change anything, and the commission intends to negotiate with charters on enrollment caps, Ramos said.

Charter growth is costly, and officials have said the district cannot afford uncontrolled costs. A few weeks ago the commission approved a $300 million bond sale to plug a deficit.

Fayfich said he did not believe any other district in the state had ever claimed to have the power to ignore the law that prohibits districts from capping charter enrollment unless the charter agrees.

In the spring, Commonwealth Court ruled that the district had violated the 2008 law when it limited enrollment at two city charters and refused to pay for additional students. The district is attempting to appeal.

"If a charter school wants to agree to a cap, that is fine with us," Fayfich said.

But the coalition, which represents the state's 180 charters, objects to districts imposing caps and telling charters to accept them to continue operating, he said.

The coalition's statement also chided the SRC for having a moratorium on new charter applications since 2007 and for having "made few honest attempts to work with existing charter schools on mutually agreed-to limitations on student enrollment, [and] has never encouraged the growth of high-quality independent charter schools."

Fayfich said the commission had turned some low-performing district schools over to charter operators to operate as Renaissance charters but had not allowed good charter schools to expand.

He said he did not know that the SRC recently approved 1,866 more seats at high-performing charters in 2012-13 and 5,416 additional seats by 2017. The district projects the growth will cost $139 million over five years.

Ramos said that this school year, 30 percent or approximately 61,000 of 203,240 public school students are in charter schools in the city. "Despite unprecedented financial crises, the district has continued to make high-quality seats a priority," Ramos said.

The recently approved expansions are part of a new effort to increase spots for students in high-performing schools to meet the goals of the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact. The district, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and charter schools are working to add 50,000 seats in good city schools in five years.


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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