Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What the heck just happened to the Philly School District?

Last week, one of the top stories in Philadelphia, reported by, Newsworks, NBC, and others, was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision stripping out almost all of the Philadelphia School District's governing powers.

This is a complex matter that may have huge effects on the 134,000 students in Philadelphia's traditional public school's, as well as the roughly 67,000 students enrolled in charters. I could not find a news story that really got past the "?!?" point and dug into what the court opinion says, what will happen now, and what may happen soon. So I'll give it a shot.



The court decision at the heart of this is West Phila. Achievement Charter Elem. Sch. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 31 EM 2014 (Pa. 2016), which you can read in full here. The decision, released on February 16th, is moderately lengthy and very technical, but here is a snapshot:

Basically everything done by school districts in Pennsylvania (build schools, negotiate teacher contracts, decide whether to allow a charter school) is governed by the state's Public School Code, which dates back to the 1940s. In 1998, the Public School Code was amended to add § 6-696(i)(3). § 6-696(i)(3) gave schools in financial "distress" the ability  to suspend or revoke charter schools as well as any part of the Public School Code that it did not wish to follow. The theory behind this law change was that allowing broke school districts to ignore parts of the law would allow them to reduce expenses and get back on their feet more easily. For instance, if a school district is able to close a charter school without following the Public School Code requirements, it will no longer have to pay that school for teaching some of the school district's students.

Fast forward to 2001: The Philadelphia School District was in financial distress, and the Public School Code was again amended, this time getting rid of the Philadelphia School District (and local school board) entirely and replacing it with the state governor-appointed School Reform Commission (SRC).

The Plaintiff in this case (West Philly Achievement Charter Elementary School), asked the SRC to allow it to run as a charter school in 2001. The SRC said yes and gave the school a 5-year charter (license to run). In 2006, the school requested and received another five years. In 2011, the school asked again and the SRC tacked on a condition:

Under the Public School Code, a school district has the right, after a charter school's students do poorly on the PSSA four years in a row, to place "reasonable restrictions" on the charter school and require that the school improve before those restrictions are lifted. In 2011, the SRC decided to flex its muscles under § 6-696(i)(3) for the first time and remove the requirement that a charter school is struggling before restrictions are placed on it. Instead, the SRC told West Philly Achievement (which was not struggling) that it could continue as a charter school provided that it limited its size to 400 students.

West Philly Achievement balked and kept running without the SRC's permission. Things came to a head in 2013 when the SRC used § 6-696(i)(3) to rescind/supersede additional parts of the Public School Code, including:
  • Limits on the SRC's ability to revoke/suspend charter schools (previously, the charter school had to fail in specific ways; now it could be revoked at will)
  • The right of a charter school to appeal the denial of a charter (previously, a charter denial could be appealed to a state board; the SRC appears to have nixed this right)
  • The rules that school districts could not limit the size of charter schools.
In response, West Philly Achievement sued, claiming that the law that the SRC used, § 6-696(i)(3), was unconstitutional:

The Legal Issue

The Pennsylvania Constitution states in part that "The legislative power of this Commonwealth shall be vested in a General Assembly, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives." PA. CONST. art. II, § 1. Pennsylvania courts have interpreted this sentence to mean that the state legislature cannot simply delegate its law making powers to other groups and exit stage right. Instead, any law that gives another group legislative power (like § 6-696(i)(3) did to the SRC) must have detailed guidelines and objectives explaining what the legislature is trying to accomplish by giving power away. The law should also require the party receiving power to explain every time it steps outside of the law why it is doing that and how that fits in with the legislature's goal.

Here, the Supreme Court took it for granted that § 6-696(i)(3) was intended to make it easier for the SRC to improve its finances (by, for example, limiting the extent of charter schools that cost the district a lot of money). But where § 6-696(i)(3) went wrong was it allowed the SRC to do basically whatever it wanted without any explanation (explaining how suspending a portion of the Public School Code would help the SRC's finances) and without any restriction. The Supreme Court found that the law, as written, delegates too much power from the legislature to the SRC, and is therefore unconstitutional.


The clear answer to "what now" is that the SRC has no ability to limit the growth of charter schools. If many more Philadelphia School District students wish to attend a charter school instead of a regular public school, there is nothing the SRC can do to prevent charter school proponents from building enough charter schools to suit that.

Because every seat filled in a Philadelphia charter school takes away a per-student tax payment to the Philadelphia School District/SRC, the Supreme Court decision opens the door for a lot more financial trouble for the district in the months and years ahead.


Here is the good news for anti-charter school people. Despite a lot of excitement and doomsday reactions, this entire ruling doesn't have to be a big deal. The Supreme Court basically told the legislature last week that its law stunk; it violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court explained how it violates the Constitution: It gave the SRC too much power without providing reasonable limits and making the SRC explain why it was doing what it was doing. The solution to all of this should be apparent: Rewrite the law, and get it right this time.

It's unclear what the attitude is in Harrisburg for giving this another shot, and politics is not something I'm equipped to dive in to here. But in the present circumstance, where state legislators have acted to bail out the insolvent Philadelphia School District in years past, and this new court decision will spell additional financial trouble, it stands to reason that there will be strong motivation to fix this problem and fix it soon, giving the SRC back much of its charter school-limiting power.

(Forgive the platitude, but) time will tell.

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