Philadelphia Charter Schools Sue City to Remove Enrollment Cap

Published February 23, 2011

Five more Philadelphia charter schools have joined a class-action lawsuit challenging limits placed on enrollment by the city’s public school district, which controls the tax dollars that flow to the independently operated schools.

In all, a coalition of 11 schools called Philadelphia Charters for Excellence has mounted the legal challenge to the city’s charter school law. The Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, a 900-student K-12 school in North Philadelphia, launched the effort in late 2010.

The district had imposed a limit of 675 students on Palmer. The school exceeded that enrollment this year and sued; a judge in October granted Palmer a preliminary injunction and ordered the district to release money to the school while the lawsuit is pending.

In mid-January, five more schools joined the challenge, defying the district’s decision to cap their enrollments. They say up to 30,000 Philadelphia schoolchildren have been unnecessarily turned away from charter schools in the city because of the limits.

National Implications
The controversy has drawn the attention of charter advocates nationwide, who say a favorable precedent could free other charter schools to remove enrollment caps and start accepting many more new students.

“These eleven Philadelphia charter schools are committed to accountability and transparency, and to academic excellence,” the schools said in a statement released by Philadelphia Charters for Excellence announcing the suit. “They have the support of their students and their families, as well as their communities. Their only demand is that [the school district] act with fairness and lawfulness.”

The district, which countersued the Palmer school for violating the enrollment caps, is holding firm.

“The district stands firm in its belief that charter schools must be held to reasonable standards of academic performance in the delivery of education programs in similar ways as traditional public schools,” the district said in its own written statement to the media. “Our agreements are intended, and are structured, to ensure that public resources are used to provide students and parents with outstanding education choices.”

Solution for Enrollment Crisis?

The lawsuits arrive as the Philadelphia public school district is in crisis. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has come under fire for bypassing district rules in giving no-bid contracts to a favored contractor—and then investigating her staff in a search for the whistleblower who took that information to the press.

The district is also facing a reported $430 million shortfall in its budget for the 2010 fiscal year, with a recent analysis revealing more than 70,000 empty classroom seats throughout the system. School closures may result.

“Charters shouldn’t be penalized for the financial mismanagement of the district and the gaping deficit it’s facing, which is directly related to spending stimulus funds on personnel and other recurring expenses,” said Jurate Krokys, vice president of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence. “Charters are managed with a level of accountability unheard of in district schools, with regular independent audits and financial reporting.”

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