In a decision that could prove far-reaching, Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday that the Philadelphia School District does not have the power to override state law and limit charter-school enrollment.
The School Reform Commission moved in 2010 to cap enrollment in - and therefore payments to - some city charters that had previously agreed to limits, but it declined to do so under new charters.
Those schools, Richard Allen Preparatory and Delaware Valley, were ultimately joined by Folk-Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School, Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School, and Wakisha Charter School in a suit claiming the caps were illegal.
Two of the schools that sued, Walter Palmer and Wakisha, have closed.
The court, in a majority decision written by Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt, noted that the district's central claim was that the School Reform Commission had the authority to suspend part of the state law "which specifically forbids it from imposing enrollment caps on any charter school."
Upholding a lower-court ruling, Commonwealth Court judges ruled that the SRC lacks that power.
"This is a major victory for school choice in Philadelphia and for charter schools," said Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Bob Fayfich in a statement Thursday. "This decision is likely to have a ripple effect across the state because it means local school boards and districts cannot override school law for financial reasons."
Kevin McKenna, a lawyer who represented some of the charters that filed suit, said it was an "important decision."
"The court said the SRC and the district cannot simply suspend certain parts of the school code that they don't particularly care for in their daily operations," McKenna said.
If the Commonwealth Court decision stands, schools that do not agree to enrollment caps cannot be barred from asking the state to pay for additional students if the district refuses, McKenna said.
Fernando Gallard, district spokesman, said that he could not comment on ongoing cases, but that the school system is "exploring all legal options," so an appeal to the state Supreme Court remains possible.
In the past, district officials have said that they need the teeth to be able to impose charter caps. Ballooning charter costs, they say, have hit the fiscally distressed school system hard.
This year, the district is expected to spend $793.9 million on charter-school costs, up from $727 million in 2014-15.