Philadelphia Charter Lawsuit Highlights Funding Gap, Enrollment Caps

Published December 13, 2010

An example of the success of the charter school movement in the United States—and the resistance of the entrenched education establishment—is the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in North Philadelphia. The K-12 school has grown from 300 students to nearly 900 in 10 years—and there’s a sizable waiting list. The school features high student retention rates and remarkable levels of parental involvement.

Perhaps most importantly, it is meeting federal standards of “adequate yearly progress” toward education standards in a city notable for its broken school system.

“We’re growing very fast to be one of the biggest charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania,” says Walter Palmer, the school’s founder and a longtime Philadelphia education and social-justice activist.

That success, however, has brought the school to a crossroads: It is embroiled in a legal fight with the Philadelphia school district, which controls the public tax dollars that flow to charter schools in the city.

Palmer says it is owed $1.7 million in aid that was supposed to follow students who left the district to attend its school; the district says Palmer illegally exceeded a cap of 675 students and is owed nothing. Meanwhile, the expense of the lawsuits and the shortfall in funding are taking its toll on the school.

Case Could Set Precedent
“The biggest thing is the fight to keep the doors open,” Palmer said. “A lot’s at stake.”

More than the school’s own future is at stake, in fact. Charter school advocates around Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation are watching Palmer’s case. If the school succeeds in prying money loose from the district, they say, the precedent could free other charter schools to shrug off enrollment caps and start accepting many more new students.

“If the court rules for Palmer, the tens of thousands of students currently stuck on district-imposed waiting lists could be taken into successful charter schools,” Guy Ciarrocchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, wrote in an October op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It’s an important one to watch,” agrees Debbie Robinson, vice president of communications for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCA)  in Washington, DC.

“It’s an incredibly important legal precedent for other schools, who may not have legal resources, to launch litigation to pursue their rights,” Robinson explained.

Enrollment Cap Disputed
The Palmer School launched the fight on September 24 with a lawsuit opposing the Philadelphia School District’s practice of mandating enrollment caps in its aid agreements with the city’s 74 charter schools.

The suit asked a judge to order the state’s department of education to redirect aid payments from the city school district directly to the school.

The district responded with its own lawsuit in October, saying Palmer School agreed to the limit. Palmer disputes the district’s claim, but he acknowledges his school might not have had its charter renewed in 2006 without accepting a district-imposed cap.

Palmer School won an early round in late October when a judge declared unilateral enrollment caps were not permitted. He ordered the state to pay $775,000 to the school, with more hearings scheduled to determine the disposition of the remaining money under dispute.

“They’ve been trying to exhaust us with delaying tactics so we’ll be out of money,” Palmer said. “If we’re out of money, we’re out of court.”

Enrollment, Funding Tied
There can be good reasons for limiting the number of students a charter school accepts, says NAPCA’s Robinson. School facilities often don’t have enough space to hold all the  students they’d like to accept. Sometimes a school is simply inferior academically, she said. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Palmer School, Robinson added.

“If the school’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, that’s a compelling reason not to give a school more space to do what it’s doing,” Robinson said. In Palmer’s case, however, limiting enrollment “harms no one but the parents and teachers in that community,” she said.

Charter advocates say it’s typical for even established charter schools to have to fight for a share of state and local education dollars. The money typically flows through local school districts, which usually have an incentive to keep the students—and the funds—to themselves.

Those kinds of disputes might become more common with a recession-fueled austerity movement at the state and national levels that could tighten budgets for education funding, said Nate Benefield, director of policy at the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania think tank.

“I think it’s probably going to continue to be a struggle,” said Benefield. “As long as the money flows through the school districts—it’s like asking McDonald’s where a Wendy’s can locate—there’s always going to be a tension between the district and the charters.”

‘Impertinent Questions’
Palmer, meanwhile, is battle-weary—but it’s also clear he delights in challenging the education status quo.

He says he’s angry the Philadelphia district is using tax dollars to contest his school’s claims—and wonders why his community-based organization has to fight for money when the district is planning to have out-of-town operators come in and run some of its failing schools.

“Someone like me is always problematic,” Palmer said. “I dare to raise the impertinent questions.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.