Changes to a state law governing enrollment in charter schools did not affect an enrollment cap imposed on a Philadelphia charter school, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The court unanimously held that a 675-student cap the School District of Philadelphia imposed in 2005 on the Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School still held sway despite changes that were made to Section 1723-A(d)(1) of the state’s Charter School Law in 2008. Justice Seamus P. McCaffery wrote the majority opinion in School District of Philadelphia v. Department of Education, issued May 27.
According to McCaffery, the case came down to the plain language of the law and the school’s 2005 charter, which adopted a resolution the district’s School Reform Commission passed in 2005 limiting the charter school’s enrollment.
“The charter school’s arguments and assertions not only are contrary to the plain text of Section 1723-A(d), but also ignore the express terms of the 2005 charter,” McCaffery said in the 11-page opinion. “Regardless of the timing of the charter approval relative to the date of Section 1723-A(d)’s enactment, the crucial requirement remains the same: The charter school must have agreed to the enrollment cap ‘as part of its written charter.’”
According to court records, the school first received its charter in 2000. In March 2005, the School Reform Commission adopted a resolution granting the school’s charter renewal for Sept. 1, 2005, through August 2010. The 2005 charter made reference to and incorporated the enrollment cap, and both the school and district signed the 2005 charter.
The Charter School Law underwent several changes in 2008, including Section 1723-A(d)(1) invalidating enrollment caps on charter schools absent the schools agreeing to it.
In May 2008, the school requested to amend its charter to increase its enrollment. The School Reform Commission did not act on this request. In 2009, the commission adopted a resolution that left the cap in place.
Between 2007 and 2010, the school’s average daily enrollment increasingly exceeded the amount of students for which the district funded it.
In July 2010, after the 2009-10 school year, the charter school wrote to the state Department of Education and asked it to withhold $1.7 million from the Philadelphia School District’s subsidy allocation for students the school educated above its enrollment cap between the 2007-08 and the 2009-10 academic years.
In 2011, the secretary of the Department of Education, after hearing the dispute, determined that the school had agreed to the cap through the 2008 school year, but was entitled to payment for students above the cap in the remaining years.
Both parties appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
According to McCaffery, the Commonwealth Court determined that the 2008 amendment altered the agreement. The court affirmed the department secretary’s findings, and held that the parties needed to have a new signed agreement for the cap to be imposed.
The district appealed, and argued that the school had agreed to the cap when it signed the 2005 charter and the amendment to the law did not negate the enrollment cap.
The school contended that the cap had not been mutually agreed upon, and that the charter did not explicitly agree to the cap or mention it in the plain text, and, therefore, the cap was not enforceable.
According to McCaffery, the law, which stated that a written charter agreed to by a school can set a cap on enrollment regardless of when the charter was approved, was not ambiguous. The “straightforward” text of the charter also contradicted the school’s arguments that the cap was unilaterally imposed and that the charter was not an agreement, McCaffery said. Enrolling more students than allowed also did not show that the school did not acquiesce to the charter, but only that the school intentionally failed to abide by the charter, McCaffery added.
“When, as in this case, a charter has been approved prior to enactment of Section 1723-A(d), that subsection applies, exactly as it applies to charters approved subsequent to the enactment,” McCaffery said. “There is no dispute that the charter school signed the 2005 charter. By doing so, it agreed to all the terms of the charter, including the enrollment cap.”
Michael Levin of Levin Legal Group in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., who represented the school district, said he was pleased with the decision.
“The school district is very pleased and believes [the decision] is consistent with the statute and the charter,” Levin said.
A message left with a spokesman for the Department of Education, and a call to Matthew Haverstick of Conrad O’Brien, who represented the charter school, were not returned.
(Copies of the 11-page opinion in School District of Philadelphia v. Department of Education, PICS No. 14-0851, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •