Pa. Supreme Court sides with SRC in charter school case

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The School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a ruling that could help school districts — especially Philadelphia –when charter schools seek to expand their enrollment.

In a decision posted late Tuesday, the state’s top court said that the 1997 charter school law does not give charter schools a right to amend their operating agreements or give the state Charter Appeal Board authority to consider such requests.

The ruling reversed Commonwealth Court, which ruled in 2015 that the Discovery Charter School in Philadelphia’s Parkside neighborhood could take its case for expanding its enrollment by 70 percent to the state board because the School Reform Commission had not acted on the request.

Limiting charter enrollment saves the district money because the district pays charters by the student. In the last school year, the district paid $8,487 for each charter student in regular classes and $25,624 for each student who received special-education services. The district’s 86 charter schools enrolled 65,000 students.

The Supreme Court said the 1997 law does not mention amendments and only gives the Charter Appeal Board jurisdiction to consider applications and renewals that have been denied and charter agreements that have been revoked.

The Supreme Court opinion, signed by Justice Max Baer, said that Discovery may apply to the SRC for a new charter that includes a higher student enrollment but that it was not entitled to make its argument before the Charter Appeal Board in Harrisburg.

The K-8 charter school enrolled 735 students in the last school year, according to the state Department of Education.

“The School District of Philadelphia is pleased with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ruling regarding Discovery Charter School, including the court’s decision to uphold core tenets of the Charter School Law,” Megan Lello, a district spokeswoman, said in a statement Wednesday. “The district will continue to analyze the decision and any potential implications to charter schools in Philadelphia.”

In a statement, Discovery said its trustees are reviewing the court’s opinion. It added: “We will continue to provide the high quality education that we have historically provided for the students of Philadelphia.”

The long-running case stems from an amendment the school sought in 2012 when it applied for a new five-year charter. Among other things, Discovery said it planned to move to a larger facility at 5700 Parkside Ave. and wanted to increase its maximum enrollment from 620 to 1,050 over four years to enroll more students on its waiting list.

The district charter office recommended the renewal, but sent Discovery a proposed new agreement starting in 2013-14 that kept enrollment at 620.

Discovery refused to sign the proposed charter because it said it violated state law that prevents school districts from unilaterally imposing a cap on charter enrollment.

In July 2013, as the district was facing serious financial problems, the SRC announced it would not consider any charter enrollment increases for the 2013-14 year. The SRC never voted on a new charter for Discovery or its amendment request.

Discovery contended that the SRC’s lack of action constituted a denial and filed an appeal with the state Charter Appeal Board. The SRC tried to quash that appeal, and the matter landed at the Commonwealth Court.

The Supreme Court noted that Discovery has continued to operate without a new, signed operating agreement with the SRC. It’s among the charters that will be considered for renewal in 2017-18.