Our legal rights

What are our legal rights?

The Pennsylvania state constitution mandates that students be provided with a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” The Pennsylvania state code outlines areas in which the “thorough and efficient” standard may be defined and measured.  There are specific provisions requiring schools to employ “sufficient numbers of qualified professional employees” (22 Pa Code 22 §4.4 (b) and 24 P. S. §  11-1106). Most important, the state code clearly states that we have the right to file a complaint about deficiencies in the educational program, and requires that the Secretary of Education must investigate each complaint and correct any deficiencies that may be found (22 Pa. Code § 4.81).

These state law requirements are also key components in the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education for students with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Curricular protections

The Pennsylvania state code lays out specific minimum mandates for curricular instruction and entitlements at each grade level.  You can read the full provisions of each code here for the elementary grade, the middle grade, and high school years. Here are examples of what areas are guaranteed by the Pennsylvania School Code.

Guidance Counseling

The Pennsylvania state code requires a “comprehensive and integrated K-12 program of student services”, specifically “guidance counseling” as required by 22 Pa. Code § 12.41. Under 22 Pa. Code § 12.41(b), “[d]evelopmental services for students that address their developmental needs” including guidance counseling, “shall be provided by each school entity…”  These student services must be “an integral part of the instructional program at all levels of the school system.”  22 Pa. Code § 12.41(c)(1).

Arts education

The state code lays out clear mandates around the arts.

  • Section 22 Pa. Code § 4 mandates that “planned instruction aligned with academic standards…shall be provided to every student” at every school at every school level, in “[t]he arts, including active learning experiences in art, music, dance and theatre.”
  • Arts instruction must be part of a comprehensive curriculum that meets “rigorous academic standards and assessments to facilitate the improvement of student achievement.”
  • The code explicitly requires that the arts “shall be provided to every student every year in the primary program” (22 Pa. Code § 4.21(e)); “shall be provided to every student in the middle level program” (22 Pa. Code § 4.22(c)), and “shall be provided to every student in the high school program” (22 Pa. Code § 4.23(c))

Foreign language

Pennsylvania mandates that every district must provide “planned instruction in at least two languages in addition to English, at least one of which shall be a modern language, and at least one of which shall be offered in a minimum 4-year sequence in the secondary program (middle level and high school).” (22 Pa. Code § 4.25(a))

Library and Technology access

  • “Information management, including library skills” shall be “provided to every student every year” at the elementary level (22 Pa. Code § 4.21 (e)(1)) and the “understanding and use of library and other information sources” shall be “provided to every student every year” at the intermediate elementary level (22 Pa. Code § 4.21 (f)(7)).
  • “Information skills, including access to traditional and electronic information sources, computer use and research” must be provided to every student at the middle grade level (22 Pa. Code § 4.22 (c)(6)).
  • ” Use of applications of microcomputers and software, including word processing, database, spreadsheets and telecommunications; and information skills, including access to traditional and electronic information sources, computer use and research” shall be provided to every student at the high school level (22 Pa. Code § 4.23 (c)(7)).


Pennsylvania’s responsibility for Philadelphia’s public school children

The state constitution makes provision of a system of public education a state responsibility. In 2001, the state took over the School District of Philadelphia and placed it under the operation of the School Reform Commission, with three of the five members appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate (24 P.S. § 6-696). As a result, the state controls whether the School District of Philadelphia can and will comply with its legal obligations to students.  Further, cuts in state appropriations triggered the need for drastic personnel cuts by the District.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that every state receiving federal funds under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) must ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400, et seq.). IDEA applies to all children with disabilities ages 3 through 21, including children who have been suspended or expelled from school (20 U.S.C. 1412). The state must also meet all requirements for students facing homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1412(11)).

Moreover, the law requires that a state educational agency is responsible to ensure direct services to children with disabilities if the local School District is “unable to establish and maintain programs of free appropriate public education” (1413). In Chester-Upland, the Court approved a class action settlement on behalf of parents and a district with financial difficulties (Chester Upland School District v. Commonwealth, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115607 (2012)). The Court concluded that some of the denials of a free appropriate public education were the result of insufficient special education funding to the District.

Under the Pennsylvania state code, the Secretary of Education is required to receive and investigate allegations of curriculum deficiencies and take action to correct the deficiencies (22 Pa. Code § 4.81).  Because a deprivation of student services under 22 Pa. Code § 12.41 will deny appropriate services to thousands of students with disabilities in the District, the Secretary also has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that these students are provided legal protections.


Why file a complaint?

Many of us have marched, testified and protested for our schools. While politically compelling, none of that has any legal weight to require a response from the state. We therefore encourage every Philadelphian to file a formal complaint according to 22 Pa. Code § 4.81about the conditions within our schools and the direct harm to students as a result.

For gifted children and children with disabilities (IEPs, 504 plans, and G-IEPs), there is a specific state complaint process. The state must investigate and issue a Complaint Investigation Report within 60 days.

The state also has a consultation hotline, where a state department employee offers guidance to help resolve problems. The hotline must record and log all calls. That phone number is:  800-879-2301

Our goal is to hold the state accountable for the widespread and harmful impact of violations of its own state constitution and state code, and to test the responsiveness of the State to its own complaint process. The purpose of this effort is not to file complaints against principals or school staff but to focus on the mandates of the state constitution.

It’s important to make clear this is not a lawsuit. These are administrative complaints intended to document the harmful impact on students and staff throughout the school system.

We ask parent, students, educators, and concerned community members to file complaints as frequently and as soon as possible.


What parents can do

  1. File a complaint: If your school lacks services and staff and your child is not getting what they need as a result, file a complaint. If your child has an IEP or is seeking one, file an IEP complaint here.
  2. Call and report: Call the State Dept. hotline: 800-879-2301. The state is required to log and record all calls. This is a simple action that gets you in touch with an individual and makes your concern heard and recorded.
  3. Share the complaint forms with fellow parents: Explain to school staff that this is not a personal complaint about their professionalism but about the state’s responsibility to provide mandated services according to state law.
  4. Help us set up a regional or school based meeting to get parents to know their rights.


Contact information

Sonja Kerr, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia: skerr@pilcop.org, 215-627-7100, x229 or 267-546-1319

Michael Churchill, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia: mchurchill@pilcop.org, 267-546-1318

Helen Gym, Parents United for Public Education, parentsunitedphila@gmail.com

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