Parents United suit against PA Dept. of Education establishes a defined process to file & investigate complaints

(This press release was published by our attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.  Read more about why we filed here. The full filing is published below.)

Pa. Department of Ed. Establishes First-Ever Curriculum Complaints Process

Pennsylvania parents have new pathway to ask the state to investigate curriculum deficiencies

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has created its first-ever formal policyand procedure for accepting and responding to complaints from parents, teachers and advocates about curriculum deficiencies in public schools. The new process results from the settlement of a lawsuit we helped Philadelphia parents bring against PDE.

In 2014, following massive budget cuts by the state legislature, we worked with Parents United for Public Education, Media Mobilizing Project and City Councilmembers helped Philadelphia parents, teachers and advocates take advantage of a little-known state law that allowed them to file complaints with PDE alleging that the budget cuts had left students without state-mandated curriculum offerings such as foreign languages, physical education, and gifted programming.

After 825 complaints were filed, with few responses from PDE, we then helped parents bring a lawsuit (Allen v. Rivera) to ensure the state would investigate the complaints. In June 2015, the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling that affirmed PDE’s responsibility to investigate complaints about curriculum deficiencies. In another major win for parents, in December 2015 PDE found and declared curriculum deficiencies in four Philadelphia schools and ordered the School District of Philadelphia to create corrective action plans to remedy the problems.

Today, parents and advocates are applauding PDE for creating and implementing a new and transparent policy and procedure to make sure all future complaints are appropriately addressed. PDE has created a form for use in filing complaints. PDE will make this form accessible on its website and will circulate information on the new policy and procedure to all school districts and charter schools across the state. Parents can also submit complaints online through myphillyschools.com.

“I want to thank the Pennsylvania Department of Education for making this process clear and functional for parents so that we can have a voice in our children’s education and hold the state accountable to their needs,” said Robin Roberts, a Philadelphia parent who filed a number of complaints in 2014. “I filed a complaint after the School District of Philadelphia eliminated gifted programming and my son was left with inadequate academic classes. Because of my complaint and PDE’s action, this problem is now being addressed. I plan to keep using the complaints process if problems persist or new problems arise at my children’s schools and I encourage all parents to use this for curricular problems that their children may face.”

“We commend the Pennsylvania Department of Education for working with parents to create and publish this policy and procedure,” said Ben Geffen, Public Interest Law Center attorney for the plaintiffs. “As the state legislature continues to fail to adequately fund public education, this complaints process provides parents with an important tool to make sure the state is aware of and investigating the curriculum deficiencies we know exist in so many underfunded school districts across the Commonwealth.”

“Philadelphia parents are some of the greatest advocates for our city’s children. This new process provides them an additional avenue to document the serious shortfalls caused by underfunding and ensure all students receive a high-quality public education,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who supported the launch of the initiative in partnership with former council member Bill Green.

“This victory by Philadelphia parents is a victory for every parent across the Commonwealth,” said Councilmember Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, one of the plaintiffs of Allen v. Rivera. Gym and Parents United traveled to dozens of schools to help parents file the initial 825 complaints. “As our legislature continues to stall on fair and equitable funding, this complaints process is a means of ensuring parents have a voice in the quality of education of their child. I urge parents across the Commonwealth to embrace this process and start using it now to make our public education system work for everyone, everywhere.”

Under the new process, PDE staff members will review complaints to ensure they are related to curriculum, conduct an investigation within 90 days after reviewing a complaint, and investigate whether curriculum deficiencies exist. Where there are deficiencies, PDE will order school districts to create corrective action plans and will review the implementation of those plans.

Parents will soon be able to access PDE’s complaint online, or they can submit complaints online through myphillyschools.com. Complaints can be about curriculum deficiencies such as failure to provide instruction in science and technology, social studies, career education, physical education, language arts, or foreign language. The state law does not apply to complaints about a school’s non-instructional staffing, such as guidance counselors and nurses, nor does it cover facilities, such as building capacity and conditions.

NB: Press should note this case is distinct from the Law Center’s statewide lawsuit regarding education funding, which is forthcoming.

Resources

REGISTER TODAY! Parent Summit 2016 – Sat May 21st

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Then, SHARE & INVITE parents!!

This is an opportunity that you do not want to miss! We are gathering with purpose…to change the narrative of our City’s schools and the future of our children.  Join Us!

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Call to Action: A State Budget that Restores Funding to Social Services and Public Education

A1-RobinA couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a meeting of the Philadelphia delegation of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Present were 22 state representatives, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, Secretary of Human Services Ted Dallas, Mayor Michael Nutter, City Council president Darrell Clarke, SRC members, and Superintendent William Hite, among many others. The topics were the discussion of the state budget impasse and budgetary goals. In the audience were dozens of social service providers from the City and State levels. They included services for: child care/foster care, food equality, juvenile justice, people with disabilities and different abilities, legal services, and immigrant, poverty, homelessness, and education advocates. These organizations provide essential services for many people who depend on them.  This is an amazing group of organizations led by extraordinary people who require state funding to continue to operate.

For all of the presentation, all of the difficulty with passing a realistic budget that supports public education and all of the social services, there still has been little progress. It has been 89 days since the budget deadline.  Nearly three months – for organizations that typically have barely enough funding to cover their operating budgets. Government does not and cannot attempt to do the great work at: ARC, PCCY, SHARE, Education Voters, PILCOP, Congreso, and many others.  We are now in a major crisis. Many of these organizations have drawn on credit lines to keep their services going, their employees working, and populations served. Those credit lines are dwindling. Their money is running out, fast. As the budget impasse continues, there will be higher and higher consequences which will likely include the closures similar to those during the 2009 budget impasse.

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We were told of the political difficulties of moving a Republican-led legislature. We agree that representatives were “preaching to the choir”. We understand that it is critically important to ensure that government restore critical funding eliminated during the Corbett administration. What we did not hear was an effective Call to Action. Yes, we were told to contact our legislators (who happened to be many of the very same people in the room). We were asked to make alliances with service organizations in other counties, in the attempt to persuade their legislators.

It was awesome to be a part of this meeting, but the public does not see was going on. We see a lot of talking, lack of movement, no pushing to get to the end. If this is as dire as presented, and it is, then where is the alarm? Rather than preaching at us, our elected officials need to return to their base; we don’t need them just to inform us of the things in Harrisburg but to talk with us about our issues.

Our Call to Action is clear.

People need to call, write, email, text, tweet their legislators. We, the people, have to share our stories to highlight the human cost of this political budget impasse. We have to tell them who we are, how important these organizations are to maintaining life, and what will happen if they have to close. Our legislators need to hear that these organizations have been providing the services that our government has let slide. Who else handles indigent youth, immigrant services, foster families, trauma care, food insecurity, and mental health needs.  Who else educates our students with different abilities like Overbrook School of the Blind? A school which operates on 60% state funding and prepares students for gainful employment and independence.

If you or a family member receives services, your legislators need to hear from you. This not a Philadelphia issue, there are people who rely on social services in all parts of this Commonwealth.  Your story is important and crosses political lines. With these stories, we fully expect that our legislators with use their power to rally agreement and get us what we need.  We need our legislators to take our stories to their committees, the House and Senate floor, radio and TV shows, letters to the editor, blogposts, and donors.  We need hear you talking about our realities. We need you to show the human cost of partisanship.

In the end, our elected officials should be working on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness instead of money, power, and the pursuit of politics.

Ready for action? Find your legislator here.

Our Statement: Any Charter Expansion Continues to Impoverish the District

This statement is in response to the School Reform Commission special meeting for charter applications February 18th.

“I too believe in OPTIONS. Fair options like being able to send my children to schools that are safe with the basic items are provided like books, nursing, counselors, and adequate staffing. Yet under the current budget you tell me that’s not feasible. Choices that are realistic, not the who you know, closed-door, lottery options that we see in some charters that give families a false sense of exclusivity as if they were a private schools.”    -Kendra Brooks, Steel Elementary

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It was absolutely fantastic and inspiring to see so many parents who gave strong testimony in support of neighborhood district schools across the city. Parents like, Adam Weaver (Lea, 19139), Melissa Wild (Jackson, 19147), Mollie Michel (Southwark, 19148), and Christine Carlson (Greenfield, 19103), and our own Kendra Brooks (Steel,19140). Their riveting testimonies continue to resonate that charter hyper-expansion comes at the expense of students in all district schools. We do expect that they were heard by the SRC.

Last Wednesday’s meeting was the culmination of many hours of work and many groups coming together. We are proud to see such strong response from Action United, PCAPS, PCCY, YUC, PSU, Caucus of Working Educators, and Alliance of Philadelphia Public Schools.

Though five is not as bad as 10 or 39, it is clear that this district cannot sustain one single new charter school. Without additional money, charter expansion is a zero sum game.

We are glad that charters like Green Woods, MaST, String Theory, and Philadelphia Music and Dance that were set to cannibalize existing public school populations, were overwhelmingly denied.

We want to acknowledge Marjorie Neff, the only experienced educator on the SRC, who voted to deny each charter application. Her votes resounding with all of us who read these charter applications and the subsequent analysis, realizing that each was flawed. There is alarming concern about the large number of abstentions from the remaining commissioners including Chairman Bill Green. It is apparent that the appointed school board is being substantially influenced by these pro-charter corporations. It does not appear that the SRC is at all concerned with our students as they are with their corporate sponsors. Unfortunately, this is only the latest evidence of the lack of transparency from the school commissioners.

This fight is not over, only just starting. SRC has consistently denied a voice for public schools while making everything possible for charters. This approach is demoralizing and financially irresponsible. We have to be vigilant against the back room big money deals that allowed these 5 to be approved. We need to be diligent in the charter appeal process to the state. We need to continue to call out the bribes that allow our district to be sold off piecemeal and our children to subsist in schools where resources are below the ”doomsday” budget levels. All of us: parents, teachers, administrators, community organizers, students must focus on getting Pennsylvania a fair full funding formula for public education to assure that our students receive the thorough and efficient education as the state mandates.

Thank You to Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia

It was an honor to speak for the clients of PILCOP during their Annual Gala –  A Celebration of Civil Rights. The work that is being done here is vital to ensuring civil rights are being addressed, inequities corrected, and inclusion for all. Here are my remarks:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you at your magnificent gala.

As Amy Laura mentioned, I am the mom to three fantastically smart, active, and independent children who attend Philadelphia public schools. My husband, Curtis, and I are transplants from Missouri and are public school graduates.
My story begins 9 years ago, when my oldest started 1st grade. We did our research, met with the school principal, asked a lot of questions, and sent him on to our neighborhood school. After our initial anxiety, what we found were experienced dedicated teachers, a library, knowledgeable and caring counselor, and nurse. Our school had support people in the security guard and classroom assistants, like my mom used to be. My son experienced a vibrant rich environment which included Art, Music, gifted support, books, after school extracurricular and tutoring programs.

Then came the 2011-12 budget crisis. The School District of Philadelphia which educated just 10% of the state’s children, suffered 1/3 the cuts totaling 300 million dollars. The lack of funding and the inability of the city and district to close the gap led to teacher and staff layoffs, cuts to essential services like guidance counselors and nurses, the elimination of art, music, and sports programs, school closures, and shuffled children. Each year, there are more cuts to services and staff, more elimination of essential services and extracurricular programs, more holes in the net that supports all of our children.

This is when I moved from an active parent to an activist. Education is so vitally important to provide more equality and the opportunity for all to pursue their happiness. Access to high quality education can close the gaps in society that perpetuates poverty, denies advancement, and limits future opportunities. When you see what is happening to the educational process in these buildings, you have a choice to stand up or to look the other way. I speak up not just for my children, but for all of them. To deny children an adequate public education speaks volumes of what our society is destined to become. Parents, teachers, and staff see what is going on every day in our schools. Through the collaboration of PILCOP and Parents United for Education, we were able to activate parents to fight for the state mandated “thorough and efficient” public education mandate in the state constitution by filing deficiency complaints to the Pa. Department of Education. There were a total of 825 complaints filed in 6 months from Philadelphia’s school district. This is more than the office had previously received statewide in a full year.

I filed two complaints that are a part of this suit against the PA Dept. of Education. I have a son with a gifted Individualized Educational Plan. This plan legally dictates what is required to maximize his learning experience. He had zero opportunity to learn at this higher level in school after the district canceled gifted support classes. This educational system is not addressing any of these students’ mandated needs.

The second complaint was more significant and directly due to staffing cuts. Teachers at our school were told to toilet the K-3 grade children as a class group. This had to be done because there were no additional personnel to monitor the halls or bathrooms to ensure that children were safe. Also, it was found that some of the bathrooms were locked because they were in need of cleaning or maintenance. Or that they were clean, but staff did not want them to be dirtied. This led to whole classrooms walking to other areas of the school building to use open and available facilities which at times were not clean.

Either way, children from 5-8 years old had to wait until it was their class time to go to the bathroom. Some did not make it. This practice was a huge burden on teachers with decreased instructional time, interruption of other classes in session. Not to mention the psyche of our youngest students.

When I sent my complaints to Department of Education nothing happened. No investigation, zero follow-up. It was like they fell into a black hole. I did not know the next steps, if any, to take.

I am grateful that the Law Center has taken up this fight to get answers and justified investigation of the issues raised during the complaint process. And, hold those heading the Department of Education to some level of accountability.

Parents would have no other recourse to address the problems seen in our schools and the decimation of education without the expertise and dedication of PILCOP.

It is unfortunate that we have to resort to legal measures; however I am grateful that the Law Center is here to navigate this process and address the serious deficits that are present in nearly all Philadelphia public schools.

Their work is invaluable to give parents voice and action for their children. I am thankful that the Public Interest Law Center has been here to ensure that we can achieve the next level of progress – even for wayward souls, like myself, who chose a career in healthcare instead of law.

So, I truly thank Amy Laura, Ben, Michael, Barbara, and the entire staff at Public Interest Law Center.

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Sabra Townsend, Robin Roberts, Helen Gym
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Robin Roberts, William Fedullo – Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Helen Gym