By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English.
The Philadelphia School District is an unwieldy beast. Shaped by the city’s changing demographics and plagued by everlasting issues of debt, student violence, and crumbling infrastructure, it’s long been a body that requires active oversight. That job, the purview of the five-member School Reform Commission (SRC), just got significantly more complex.
In a landmark ruling on Feb. 18, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the SRC cannot suspend portions of the state school code and charter law, as it had been doing since its formation in 2001. The result raises a couple quick questions for the interested observer:
1. Why did the SRC disregard portions of state law to begin with?
2. Why it did take so long for people to make a fuss about this?
3. What does all this mean?
Let’s break it down with a little background on the SRC. For years, the School District was run, as are most school districts, by a local board of elected officials. The district was funded through a combination of local property taxes and state and federal contributions, both of which plummeted in the latter half of the twentieth century. The problem is: for an area as economically depressed as Philadelphia, property taxes are not nearly enough to keep the schools open. Philadelphia in particular is in a rough state as it is geographically because the city limits are also the boundaries of Philadelphia County, meaning that it can’t assess taxes from the residents of wealthy outlying suburbs.
This situation came to a head in February 1998 when David W. Hornbeck, then the Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, threatened to close all schools citywide unless Harrisburg met his proposed budget agreement, producing this indelible quote from Democratic state Rep. Dwight Evans: “Holding students and their parents and teachers hostage in an effort to gain additional funding is certainly bold but not very wise.” But the gambit worked: the state assumed control of the country’s then sixth-largest school district.
After various lawsuits and/or political wrangling, an agreement reached in 2001 created the School Reform Commission, which would consist of five appointed members (three picked by the governor, two by Philadelphia’s mayor), thereby keeping the state with majority control over how its money was used in the city. Now, it’s worth saying that while this arrangement looks like it’ll be here to stay, it’s proven to be far from stable and has not resulted in a greater share of state spending toward Philly schools. A terrific article by Patrick Kerkstra, the new editor of Philadelphia Magazine, showed that Pennsylvania’s share of support for Philly schools has dropped from 54.8 percent to 48.7 percent from 2002-2015. (Local contributions have risen 32.8 percent to over 40 percent during that span to offset a similar decrease in federal funding).
The School District is estimated to have an $80 million debt, or exactly $27 million more than Kanye West. And, suffice to say, the School District doesn’t have a blockbuster album or fashion line to help offset that — which means, the SRC has to get a bit creative. As of May 2014, the district was on the hook for the nearly 68,000 students attending over 70 charter schools to the tune of $8,419 per student (with up to $22,312 extra if the student required special education services). In order to offset this cost, the SRC imposed enrollment caps for various charters and penalized those who went over. The problem is: this rule is essentially made up. It doesn’t have a basis in state charter laws at all. In another act of nullification that would make John C. Calhoun proud, the SRC waived a section of state law that allows charter schools to bill the Department of Education for compensation if the school district refuses to pay for extra students. (It is unclear how that portion of the law — which appears to have anticipated this scenario to the tee — could be “waived.”) The SRC’s reasoning for this was that the Department of Education simply just reduces the district’s share of federal funding to accommodate the charters — an odd sort of background dealmaking that could only exist in the federalized American system of government (if you don’t like what the school district gives you, go ask the federal government!)
The SRC is now — to borrow a term from Philly’s legal lexicon — royally screwed. Charters are no longer burdened to keep their enrollment within the SRC’s specifications and, because the governing body must now adjust its pre existing regulations to conform with state law, teachers may be “reshuffled midyear” because the SRC initially made assignments with disregard to state seniority requirements. The fallout, as the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in its headline on the ruling, is very much unknown.
 Clowes, George. "Philadelphia Schools Face State Takeover." The Heartland Institute. Heartland Institute, 1 June 1998. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Kerkstra, Patrick. "City Council to School District: Go Away Already."Phillymag.com. Philadelphia Magazine, 31 May 2015. Web.
 Woodall, Martha. "Pa. Supreme Court Enters Dispute over SRC Powers."Philly.com. Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 May 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2016. Ibid.
 Graham, Kristen, and Martha Woodall. "State Supreme Court Rules against SRC; Fallout Unknown." Philly.com. Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2016
Photo Credit: Flickr User Ben Grey
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