Charter Group Criticizes Philadelphia Plan to Cap Enrollment

Earlier this month, the group responsible for overseeing the failing Philadelphia school system moved to cap the enrollment of charter schools in the district. Today, Pennsylvania charter school operators and supporters are loudly voicing their displeasure at the move.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said that the Philadelphia Reform Commission made a mistake when it chose to limit the growth of charter schools in the city. Furthermore, in the statement released after the SRC announcement, the PCPCS didn’t receive any kind of a heads up that such a move was in the works. The issue being brought up at the board meeting by the SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos was the first inkling that a cap was in the offing, and as a result the coalition was “blindsided, shocked and dismayed” by it.

Bob Fayfich, the executive director of the PCPCS said that prior to the meeting, there was no announcement that the SRC members would be considering a cap. According to Fayfich, it was only added to the meeting agenda at the last second and was moved through to the vote and passed without the public getting an opportunity to comment on the proposal.

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.”

Ramos has already made clear that what the SRC had in mind with the cap was to minimize the chance of unexpected expenses which could further strain the financial resources of severely fiscally pinched school district. The move doesn’t rule out any charter school expansions, and Ramos said that any charter plans to increase enrollment will be discussed at the negotiating table.

There are some questions as to how binding the decision by the SRC is. State law says that districts can’t impose enrollment caps on charters without the consent of the charter operators. The law was affirmed earlier this year when the Commonwealth Court walked back the enrollment limit imposed by the Philadelphia school district on two of its charters, saying it ran afoul of the 2008 legislation.

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.