School District of Philadelphia administration building

Since the School Reform Commission was established in 2001 and Philadelphia schools became “the property and problem of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the five-person board essentially had unfettered power to cancel portions of the school code and implement policies commissioners wanted, whether that was capping charter school expansion or canceling parts of teachers’ contracts.

Fifteen years after the board and its powers were established by the state legislature, the state Supreme Court essentially ruled that it has too much power. 

“This kind of pulls the rug out from many of policies we have taken to try to improve the quality of education for children in Philadelphia,” SRC commissioner Bill Green lamented Tuesday to The Notebook. “It will cost the district probably millions, if not tens of millions of dollars.”

While public school advocates have been long critical of the SRC, they have concerns with the court’s ruling. It does limit the powers of the commission, which was supposed to take over the school system and fix the financial problems that have plagued Philadelphia schools for years. In the last five years, some have complained the SRC has abused its power as commissioners canceled provisions in the state charter law and the school code to close schools faster, and withdrew some seniority protections for teachers.

But the root of this case, handed down in a 4-2 bipartisan decision, is charter school expansion. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary, a school that claimed the legislature got it wrong when it said the SRC could ignore charter regulation laws and cap enrollment. This ruling allows charters that are already in operation to grow unchecked by the district, which could — as Green noted — cost taxpayers, and public schools, millions.

“The ruling from the PA Supreme Court is indeed a ‘double-edged sword,’” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said in a statement. “Though it seems to place much-needed checks and balances on an SRC run amok, it also has the potential to put our school district finances in an extremely precarious position.”

So without one of its most extraordinary powers, is this ruling the beginning of the end for the SRC?

Ruling renews cries to abolish the SRC

The SRC was formed as part of a state takeover in 2001, and it includes five commissioners — three appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. For years it didn’t use its power to cancel provisions of the school code as much as some had anticipated. But the recession and Tom Corbett’s administration brought cuts to education budgets statewide over the last five years, and the SRC exercised its power more often.

“The SRC was charged with operating a system in deep financial and educational distress within the specific authority granted by the General Assembly,” district spokesman Fernando Gallard said in a statement to Newsworks. “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.”

It used the power to cancel the school code in at least four different ways: Capping charter enrollment; making it harder to open new charters; increasing the speed with which schools are closed, and canceling a provision that says staffing decisions are made based on seniority.

Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym has long been an opponent of the SRC’s tactics. Gym said the commission, over the last several years, has taken some of its powers “to an extraordinary level,” specifically by canceling provisions in teachers’ contracts that had already been worked out.

“They have overstepped their bounds, they have trampled on the rights of educators and students and have sought this ridiculous designation as the ultimate superpower,” Gym said, adding, “[The SRC] has not been effective, and I think we need a new governance structure. A normal governance structure.”

There’s certainly an appetite in Philadelphia to ditch the SRC, and return the district to some form of local control. Advocates have mentioned an elected school board, or one with members appointed by the mayor and city council. Last May, 75 percent of voters said “yes” to a non-binding referendum that would urge the state government to abolish the SRC and return the district to local control.

But those Philadelphia voters and Philadelphia’s local politicians don’t have the power to do that. That’s up to either the SRC itself — which could vote to be abolished and the state Secretary of Education could sign off on it — or the state legislature. With both chambers in Harrisburg controlled by Republicans and considering the current political climate in the capital, Philadelphia legislators, even though they have Gov. Tom Wolf on their side, have little power in bringing a vote to abolish the SRC anytime soon.

Some in the state legislature have long been concerned with how the School District of Philadelphia spends its allocated state resources. Though state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said he trusts school administrators with state funds and added that it’s “far beyond time” the SRC be abolished.

“The legislators and the senators in Philadelphia — and dare I say the governor — want the School Reform Commission to complete its duties,” Hughes said. “There are people outside the city of Philadelphia who feel a different way and have less than the best interest of the students.”

State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, has in the past supported the abolition of the SRC, but he said Wednesday that given the financial condition of the district, the focus should be on the legislature working on enacting more effective “standards and limitations.”

“There’s an opportunity for the Philadelphia delegation in both chambers,” he said. “How can we incorporate greater accountability so we are on a path to returning the district to localized control?”

Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, said this Supreme Court decision will probably add weight to the claim that the SRC has run its course. However, he said, it’s a diversion from one of the most dire problems: This could financially devastate the district.

Charter regulation and fair funding

The Pennsylvania state legislature has yet to pass a budget for last year, let alone look ahead to the next year and change how schools are funded. Calls for Harrisburg to pass a fair funding formula that public school advocates want — a formula that takes into account financial needs and poverty in districts — have gone on for years, but it doesn’t seem they’ll be answered with passed legislation anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has been named the nation’s “most inequitable” when it comes to school funding, as districts with the highest poverty rates — like the School District of Philadelphia — receive about a third less state and local funding compared to districts with more affluent students.

In Philadelphia, some say the the proliferation of charter schools in the city has been an important step in taking students and management responsibilities off the hands of the district as it’s faced financial complications. Others say it’s one of the core reasons the district is in the situation it is — for every student that converts to a charter, the district pays out the charter school to host that student. It’s why people like Jordan are concerned the now unchecked charter expansion could bankrupt the district.

Hughes said the decision points to a need for the state the re-examine its charter school law that allows these types of schools to operate without being capped by district administration. For instance, if a school district approved a K-5 charter elementary school with 200 students, there’s nothing stopping it in state law from growing to a K-12 school with 2,000 students.

Councilwoman Gym called the state’s charter law “the worst in the country,” saying it allows charters to grow without accountability and doesn’t allow districts to deny charters based on their own financial status.

“Harrisburg needs to be serious about charter accountability, and it needs to clean up the ridiculous kind of funding streams that allow charters to exploit loopholes,” she said, and “it can’t be through an unaccountable body that just believes it has the power to do anything.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.