As Philadelphia schools open under a second year of Doomsday budget proportions, Parents United for Public Education, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Media Mobilizing Project, and State Sen. Vincent Hughes announced the re-launching of the website www.myphillyschools.com and encouraged parents to file formal complaints with the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education if schools lack necessary resources.
Last year, Philadelphia parents filed 825 complaints from more than 90 different schools with the State Dept. of Education. It remains the largest filing in state history.
We believe the complaints helped shake loose more than $45 million in federal money the state was holding in return for teacher union concessions. Much of the $45 million last fall went toward special education services and restoration of some guidance counselors and other school-based personnel. (Let’s also not forget a significant chunk of money also went to pay charter school enrollment increases.) In a handful of cases involving special needs children (who have more specific legal protections), the State ordered the District to provide full-time school nurses.
The complaints also helped us target our advocacy to eliminate some of the worst offenses – like getting a commitment to immediately reduce classroom sizes of greater than 40 students and to nearly eliminate the 100 split grade classrooms which opened last year.
But it’s not enough.
This year schools are short hundreds of staff in special education assistants and noon-time aides. Most personnel – like counselors, nurses, librarians and aides – have not been fully restored to manageable levels. Your voice still matters.
Pennsylvania state law allows for any individual to file a complaint with PDE for curriculum deficiencies and obligates the state to conduct an investigation of that complaint. That was our intention when we launched our campaign last year to hold the state accountable for the consequences of enforcing a Doomsday budget.
This week, Parents United and PILCOP also filed a lawsuit against the state department of education for the failure to adequately investigate most of the complaints filed last year. Among the complaints:
- A child dealing with the death of a parent with no counselor available during a time of extreme distress.
- A high school student who started each period searching for desks and chairs because her classes were so overcrowded.
- A 7-year-old with emotional and learning needs who began regressing into scratching himself bloody during class because a classroom aide and full-time counselor were no longer available like they were the year before.
- A Bartram High parent who filed a complaint in October about multiple assaults, disruptions and lack of staffing while her honors student struggled – “I have serious concerns about my child’s safety,” she wrote, presaging violence at Bartram that would make national news later in the year.
For most families, the state failed to make any attempt at an investigation. Most families received a standard form letter informing them that the issue was a local one and would be referred to the School District. None of the families received a response from the School District.
More than anything else, the complaints underscore the absurdity of the state’s governance of Philadelphia public schools for the last 13 years. For more than a decade, Philadelphia has been under a state takeover in which the state exercises full powers to drastically alter the District’s governance structure in an effort to address a crisis situation. Yet when parents complain about the actual crisis in schools – a lack of resources, appropriate staffing, the absence of required programs and services – the state claims this is a local responsibility over which they have no power and thus no responsibility. For example, the state claims it’s all about financial accountability. As a result, it oversaw the closing of 30 public schools and thousands of layoffs. But when it comes to holding districts accountable for the academic fallout of such decisions, the state cheerleaders suddenly scatter.
It’s more than just legal convenience. It’s what we mean by an abdication of responsibility.
As we head into the new year, we ask parents and caregivers not to accept the circumstances within our schools. We’ve re-opened our website www.myphillyschools.com where parents, educators, students and the public can continue to file complaints and demand state action. Learn more about your legal rights here.
We are coordinating with parents and school leaders at back to school nights and Home and School meetings. This isn’t about punishing principals and school staff. It’s about a clear documentation of insufficient resources and placing accountability squarely back onto the state where it belongs.
Contact us about your next HSA meeting or school event and we’ll be happy to come out.
We’ll keep on holding our state responsible for the conditions of our schools. We hope you’ll help us do it too.
Find out more about your legal rights and how to file a complaint at www.myphillyschools.com.
Read the letter from all 23 members of the Senate Democratic caucus.