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February 17, 2016

School Reform Commission reels after Pa. Supreme Court rolls back powers

Supreme Court finds SRC power to suspend school code requirements unconstitutional

Education School Reform Commission
School District of Philadelphia headquarters Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.

The School Reform Commission reacted Wednesday to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that may significantly hamstring the 5-member panel in its future efforts to secure financial stability and manage the expansion of charter schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the power given by the General Assembly to the SRC to suspend school code requirements is unconstitutional. The decision will revoke the authority that has enabled the SRC to take measures such as closing schools, reassigning teachers and imposing enrollment caps on charter schools to limit their growth.

"This is a sobering moment," the SRC said in a statement Wednesday. "The SRC has acted with an eye towards ensuring high quality options for students in a managed way. The SRC was charged with operating a system in deep financial and educational distress within the specific authority granted by the General Assembly. By allowing principals to manage their workforce, ensuring the quality of charter seats, and managing charter growth, the SRC worked to fulfill its fundamental mission of getting the School District out of financial and educational distress.”

The Supreme Court ruling stemmed from a case brought by West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School, which challenged the part of the SRC's school code suspension power that enabled it, in 2013, to force charters to agree to enrollment caps.

The 4-2 Supreme Court decision could immediately result in revised rules for reassigning teachers and rehiring those who have been laid off. The SRC had been using its power to circumvent a requirement that teachers be rehired based on seniority. The biggest impact of the decision, however, will likely be its effect on the operating agreements charter schools have with the school district. While the SRC had used its power to impose enrollment caps in such agreements – and contain the costs of expansion – the ruling may now force the school district to consult directly with charters about their enrollment plans.