PHILADELPHIA — After Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission gave itself expansive new authority over charter schools in August, the deadline has arrived for it to follow through on an attempt to curb the growth of alternative public schools in the district.

student taking testSRC-1, adopted Aug. 15, contains four major suspensions of state laws regulating charter schools in order to provide the School District of Philadelphia with additional means to address persistent financial distress.

The SRC has had the ability to suspend the public school code since the five-person appointed commission was put in charge of the district in 2002.

The recent resolution states that the SRC “desires to remove the limitation on its powers and its ability to control costs of unmanaged charter school enrollment growth.”

One of the ways it seeks to do this is by requiring charter schools to sign written charters with enrollment limits. That would be illegal in other school districts in Pennsylvania, but the SRC has exempted Philadelphia from the portion of the school code that says charter and cyber charter schools will not be subject to enrollment caps unless they agree to it.

There are currently 86 charter schools in Philadelphia, educating about 55,000 students. Letters went out in October that set a Dec. 15 deadline for charter schools to agree to the SRC’s new provisions or face possible revocation or non-renewal of their charters.

SRC-1 also gave the school district the authority to withhold funds from charter schools by suspending the section of the school code that allows charters to seek payment from the state secretary of education.

After Dec. 15, the SRC could take action against charter schools that resist, however immediately shutting down schools or stopping payment would be an unlikely extreme tactic.

“I think that would be so disruptive to the lives of children in the middle of the school year,” said Larry Jones, board president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Yet the SRC’s move to control charters has already had a ripple effect.

According to Jones, the bond market for charter schools has turned cold. Several schools that had good credit last year have received lowered bond ratings in the wake of SRC-1. This limits the ability of charter schools to secure financing.

The district has put charter schools in a state of legal uncertainty, as well.

“We can suspend all the codes we want,” Jones said. “It will only create court cases.”

When Pennsylvania authorized the establishment of charter schools in 1997, it was to “provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system.”

If the district acts on SRC-1, it makes such an expansion unlikely in Philadelphia.

Authored by Maura Pennington –

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