Education Law Center calls on policymakers to resume negotiations on budget that invests in our children

December 29, 2015


Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA, issued the following statement following the Governor’s Budget Address:

“We are pleased that the Governor exercised his line-item veto powers this morning to force all parties back to the negotiating table. We agree that the release of emergency funding is necessary to ensure that schools remain open during this impasse, but let’s be clear: Emergency funding is not sufficient and certainly not a long-term solution. All parties must immediately resume negotiations on a final budget package that makes needed investments in our children.

“The compromise budget that legislative leaders and the Governor agreed to several weeks ago is not perfect – but it is an important step in the right direction. Pennsylvania has the largest funding gap in the nation between rich and poor school districts, and its state share of public education funding is among the lowest in the country. The proposed compromise budget would begin to fund a bipartisan funding formula designed to address these historic inequities and entrenched funding inadequacies. It would also begin to provide schools with much-needed resources and help ensure that all children have access to a quality education no matter where they live.

“We urge our state policymakers to come back to the table and pass an adequate budget to support our schools. We must ensure that every child in Pennsylvania has the tools necessary to succeed, and that can only happen with a budget that reflects Pennsylvanians’ priorities and puts children first.”

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The Education Law Center is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality education. Through litigation, information, and advocacy, we advance the rights of vulnerable children of color, in poverty, in foster care, homeless or with disabilities, and English language learners. We are leaders in the statewide Fight for Fair Funding for all schools, Ensuring Equal Access to education for all children, and Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline that pushes young people out of school and into the criminal justice system.

Learn more: | @edlawcenterpa | facebook 

Education Law Center Issues Statement on Budget Impasse

Education Law Center Issues Statement on Budget Impasse


December 23, 2015

Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA, issued the following statement concerning the current budget impasse:

“The children of Pennsylvania deserve a budget that invests in them and their future. We are disappointed that the Pennsylvania House deserted the previously agreed to budget framework that would have invested critical new dollars in schools across Pennsylvania. The inadequate budget just passed by the Pennsylvania Senate walks away from our moral and legal obligations to our children and doesn’t reflect our state’s values. It reinforces unacceptable inequities in our schools and continues to shortchange children. The Governor should veto it. Every student deserves access to a nurse, a librarian, updated textbooks, and school counselors. This budget doesn’t provide hundreds of thousands of children with even these basics. We call on the House and Senate to return immediately to Harrisburg and pass a budget that restores cuts to our schools and provides every child with the opportunity to learn and reach their full potential. Children across our Commonwealth are waiting for real solutions and must no longer be held hostage by gridlock in Harrisburg.”

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The Education Law Center – PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. ELC works to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education, including poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, English language learners, and other vulnerable children.

Learn more: | @edlawcenterpa | facebook

Support Proposed Higher Ed Act: Open Doors for Youth in Foster Care and Those Experiencing Homelessness

ELC advocates for older youth in foster care and those experiencing homelessness who face significant hurdles to accessing higher education and staying in college. As a result of these barriers, less than 3% of foster youth earn a college degree. But a new proposed law would make a huge difference to support these vulnerable youth. Learn about how the legislation will help foster and homeless youth access higher education by downloading this whitepaper.

ELC urges you to support the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2015 (S. 2267/H.R. 4043). This law would help improve access to higher education for foster and homeless youth by ensuring that they have the support and financial aid they desperately need to help them graduate from college. Notably, the law includes a provision that would require colleges and universities to develop a plan to help homeless and foster youth access housing between semesters – which is a huge issue for these youth.

The law would also remove barriers and make college more affordable for homeless and foster youth by:

  • Clarifying which homeless young adults can be considered independent students to get the full financial aid they need;
  • Streamlining the FAFSA questions for homeless and foster youth;
  • Easing the verification and determination process for homeless youth; and 
  • Providing homeless and foster youth with in-state tuition rates to minimize the impact of their mobility and reduce barriers to college attendance

The law also supports homeless and foster youth with college retention, success, and completion by:

  • Designating single points of contact at institutions of higher education to assist homeless and foster youth to access and complete higher education, and other resources; and
  • Ensuring college access programs collaborate with child welfare agencies, homeless service providers, and school districts to identify, conduct outreach to, and recruit homeless and foster youth to tell them about opportunities for higher education and training.

What can you do to help? Call your Representative and Senators and urge them to co-sponsor or support the bill. You can look up your Represenentative and Senators here.



What parents of special ed and ELL students should know about testing (Interview)

An interview with Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center

Dec. 15, 2015 – Philadelphia Public School Notebook – by Brianna Spause

The Notebook interviewed Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney for the Education Law Center, in November about what parents need to know regarding testing of special education students and English Language Learners. A shorter version of this interview appears in our Dec. 2015-Jan. 2016 print edition.


Notebook: What do parents of English Language Learners and Special Education students need to know regarding standardized testing?

Maura McInerney: For both sets of parents, it’s important for them to know what their rights are. Students with disabilities and English language learners [ELLs] are entitled to accommodations on standardized tests. It’s important to discuss these issues with their schools well in advance of when the testing is taking place.

For students with disabilities, the decision of what accommodations will be provided is made by the [Individualized Education Program] IEP team. That includes whether the child will take the test or not, and what type of test the child will take. For example, there’s a PSSA, but there’s also something called the PASA, which is available for students with disabilities.

In the context of the IEP plan, there is a set of decisions about accommodations in respect to the testing itself and what will the environment look like for that student. There are many different types of accommodations.

Many students with disabilities get minimal accommodations. The most popular one is probably extended time – when in fact, they have a right to many more. They can have the test read to them. Instead of writing answers, it can be audio- or videotaped. Those issues need to be discussed with families.

With students who are ELL, many times the issue of accommodating standardized tests doesn’t even arise. You don’t have that meeting as you would with an IEP team to discuss it. Those issues need to be raised with the student’s teacher – particularly with the English as a Second Language teacher, who often knows the children very well.

For ELLs, allowable accommodations, for example, are qualified interpreters and sight translators for the Math PSSA and the Keystone Algebra I and the science tests – both the PSSA and the Biology.

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts in the School District, accommodations are rarely available. Often, it doesn’t come up.

All of these accommodations are voluntary, none of them are mandatory for ELL.  In other words, while providing accommodations for ELLs is mandatory, the specific type of modification to be provided is left to the discretion of schools.  It’s a significant issue that needs to be raised with families.

For children who have chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma, they are also entitled to accommodations in testing.


Notebook: What are some of the challenges ELL and special ed students face when taking these tests?

McInerney: I think that the most common challenge that I hear is the anxiety that it causes for children with emotional support needs or children who are ELL. I know that some ESOL [English as a Second Language] teachers have said that it can sometimes erode the child’s trust to be given this exam. They may not be able to do it [or] feel like a failure. It sometimes can undermine their trust in the system and their trust in the teacher, which is obviously something we want to sure up.

Some challenges [with special ed students] can be addressed by ensuring that IEP teams are discussing the options that are available and in place. I think it’s a matter of expanding the accommodations for children who are ELL, and quite honestly, I would consider different testing for them and to have the input of teachers in developing those tests.

ELL students are tested in their 7th-or 8th-grade class. These children, especially if this is their first year of ESOL instruction, are used to being with their ESOL teachers. They have more of a trust relationship with that person. One of the things that would be helpful [is] if they could be tested in that environment. If they have a teacher there that can assist them that might be a less anxiety producing experience for them.

It’s also the fact that we test kids who may have just come into this country. If they come after April 11, they will be tested in reading,  math, science, with absolutely no English language at all; no proficiency level.


Notebook: How well are these students performing on standardized exams?

McInerney: We know that almost 65 percent of ELL in Philadelphia scored below basic on the PSSA. Actually 69.12 percent of students who receive special education services score below basic. A lot of instructors have said that it doesn’t really make sense for them to take some of these tests because they also have to take the ACCESS tests which measure proficiency in language. The ACCESS tests cover four content areas of social studies, science, math and English. They look at listening, speaking, reading and writing proficiency across those domains and content areas.There’s a lot of problems with the ACCESS test but those are the proficiency tests that they take.

In addition, they are also taking the PSSAs and the Keystones. There are certainly benefits to having at-risk student populations take standardized tests because we want to ensure accountability. We want to ensure that schools are paying attention to these populations, knowing what their reading and math level is. I know from participating in IEP meetings that I certainly use that gauge to say, are they making progress towards their goals?

The important thing is to provide effective and individualized accommodations for many of these students. For example, if you have an ELL who has just come to this country, is at the beginning level, this child is asked to take a test in a language that they don’t know at all. Although they are allowed to essentially wait a year to take the reading test they are required to take the science [and] mathematics tests. In those instances, that child is sitting in a classroom that is providing instruction in English, and they are just learning the language. The idea that they would be able to do well on these tests is really quite astounding.

I think that we need to take a look at who is being tested [and] at what level does it make sense, especially with respect to the beginners and those who are just entering. And then, are those children getting the accommodations they need in order to get an accurate sense of whether they’re learning the material.


Notebook: What challenges does using the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement present to ELL and special ed students?

McInerney: It’s a huge obstacle [because] once we impose it as a high-stakes test, every child has to pass it. There are varied options to the Keystones. There is a project-based option, but that is also a standardized test. It is not that different than the Keystone exam. We believe in accountability and we think it is very important to ensure that students who are graduating from high school have learned what they need to go on to higher ed and to participate in the work force. Those are very important goals that we want to highlight. However, if we are going to impose these Keystone exams, we need to provide sufficient resources for our students to pass them.

If we are imposing high stakes tests, we need to ensure that there are interpreters and translators, that there is sufficient instruction time to ESOL students, which is a huge issue in the School District right now. We now have the bare-bones schools in many instances that are not able to provide the resources to bring these very at-risk students up to where they need to be. I think to test them in a system where you haven’t provided adequate resources to enable them to graduate is a huge problem.


Notebook: Do you think that using standardized tests is an effective way to measure the academic progress of these students?

McInerney: I think that with respect to some students, it can be a good, accurate, objective measure, but for students who really don’t receive the accommodations they need, who don’t have an individualized plan for how they’re going to take these tests, I think that is sometimes is not an accurate measure.

I have difficulty saying that for all children with disabilities, it’s not accurate. I think for some students it is and for other students, it’s not. I think it depends on how the test is administered. There are cohorts of students for whom particular standardized tests are not appropriate. For certain students who may have disabilities there may be certain tests that do not make sense for them to take the test. That’s a decision that needs to be made by the IEP team.

We certainly encourage as much information as we can gather about at-risk populations because we know that having that objective measure is important to make sure we’re not being left behind. There are different ways to look at that issue and to ensure that we have some objective measure of how they’re doing. We want to ensure accountability, but we really need to take a step back and look at the way that we’re doing it. At the current time, we have a one-size-fits-all universal approach that I don’t think is valid for all students.


Notebook: What measures do you think the the state could take to make sure that the testing is fair to ELL and Special Ed students?

McInerney: In both instances, and with respect to ELL, there are no mandatory accommodations at all for these students. I think that is something we need to look at. In addition, I think that we need to look at whether this test makes sense for all ELL students. I think we need to take a step back and critically analyze whether it makes sense to give it to all students in the same way. I think that for some students it does not make sense. Right now we have very vague accommodations that are available to ELLs. Everywhere you look it says all of this is voluntary, none of this is mandatory. I think we’re putting all ELL students at a distinct disadvantage.

In addition, we have a deeper problem that we have very little state standards embedded in law with respects to what ELL students are entitled to. We don’t state the minimum level of ESOL instruction that should be provided, where other states do. We shouldn’t just be looking at standardized testing in a vacuum, we should look at it in the broader view of what kind of education are we providing to our students. I think that certainly the state needs to look very  critically at whether they are providing the right test to the right students with adequate and individualized accommodations available to all.

It’s a matter of funding sometimes. In a high wealth school district, they may have accommodations that are simply not available to students in the School District of Philadelphia for whom that standardized test may have a more dire consequence. I think with children with disabilities it’s similar. There needs to be more guidance with respect to what accommodations should be made to certain students.


Brianna Spause is an intern at the Notebook.

President Obama Reauthorizes ESEA, Affording Groundbreaking Provisions for Children in the Foster Care and Juvenile Justice Systems

The following is a joint press release for immediate release by Juvenile Law Center, National Center for Youth Law, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, and American Bar Association.

Katherine Burdick, Juvenile Law Center   215-625-0551
Jesse Hahnel, National Center for Youth Law   510-835-8098 x 3003
Maura McInerney, Education Law Center of PA   215-238-6970  x 316
Priscilla Totten, American Bar Association   202-662-1094

Washington, DC (December 10, 2015)President Obama today signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a key federal law governing education, originally signed into law in 1965 and last reauthorized as No Child Left Behind in 2002. The ESSA is the first major overhaul of federal education law in over a decade. Among many new provisions, the law now requires states to ensure certain protections for vulnerable youth in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

“Children in foster care are often forced to change schools multiple times, disrupting important relationships and derailing children’s educations. The new provisions in ESSA are an important advance in ensuring school stability and academic success for students in foster care, and we look forward to supporting schools and child welfare agencies to ensure smooth implementation,” said Kathleen McNaught of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, who leads the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education.

The Legal Center, a collaborative project between the ABA, Juvenile Law Center and Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, along with the National Center for Youth Law and other members of the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, have worked for years to educate members of Congress on the unique challenges faced by children in the foster care system.

“Eliminating enrollment delays and ensuring school stability make profound differences for students in foster care. Research shows that even one fewer placement change doubles the likelihood that students in foster care will graduate high school,” said Senior Staff Attorney Maura McInerney at Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

Although states and districts will be grappling with implementation of ESSA’s many new provisions, the protections for youth in foster care hold great promise. The newly enacted ESSA is expected to reduce disruptions in education for youth in foster care and provide them with greater school stability, continuity and success through a number of provisions, including:

  • Allowing youth in foster care to remain in the same school even when their foster home placements are changed
  • Requiring schools to immediately enroll children in foster care after a school move
  • Requiring points of contact in every state education agency as well as many school districts
  • Requiring planning for school transportation for youth in care
  • Tracking achievement data for youth in care

“Numerous studies have found the educational outcomes of students in foster care to be tragically poor,” said Jesse Hahnel, Executive Director of the National Center for Youth Law. “Disaggregating foster student data will allow the public and policymakers to understand and respond to the student achievement needs of foster youth in a systemic way.”

By requiring the disaggregation of achievement data for various sub-groups including foster youth, African-Americans, English Learners and Special Needs students, school districts and states will be able to see important trends in achievement and use limited resources where they are needed most. Including foster youth as a subgroup will document and make public, for the first time, the extent of the achievement gap for youth in foster care.

The law also affords significant protections for youth in the juvenile justice system. “Youth involved with the juvenile justice system are also at a high risk for academic failure,” said Katherine Burdick, Staff Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. “These students are often struggling with family issues, mental health issues, substance abuse, or abuse and neglect. If we really want these students to succeed, we need to remove the barriers to academic success, not make it more difficult for them.”

New ESSA provisions will improve the rates of success for youth being rehabilitated in the juvenile justice system. Under the new ESSA, states receiving Title 1 Part D funding (funding for prevention and intervention programs for children and youth who are neglected, delinquent or at risk) must provide protections, including:

  • Providing better planning and coordination of education between facilities and local districts
  • Supporting reentry to the community for youth returning from juvenile justice placements, including timely re-enrollment in appropriate educational placements
  • Creating opportunities to earn credits in secondary, postsecondary, or career/technical programming
  • Requiring transfer of secondary credits to the home school district upon reentry
  • Prioritizing attainment of a regular high school diploma

The National Center for Youth Law and the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (a collaboration of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, Juvenile Law Center, and Education Law Center of Pennsylvania) look forward to working with states to implement these new provisions.


The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) is a national non-profit organization that has been working for more than four decades to improve the lives of poor children. For more information visit or follow on Twitter@NCYLNews.

The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education is a national collaboration between the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, Education Law Center and Juvenile Law Center designed to provide a strong national voice for the education of children in foster care and a national clearinghouse for information on foster care and education.  For more information visit or follow on Twitter @FosterEdSuccess.

Juvenile Law Center is the world’s oldest non-profit, public interest law firm for children, working to advance the rights and well-being of youth in the justice and foster care systems. For more information visit or follow on Twitter @JuvLaw1975.

Education Law Center of Pennsylvania works to ensure that all children have access to a quality public education, including poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, English language learners, and other vulnerable children. For more information visit or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.

Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Zero Tolerance For Zero Tolerance

Education Law Center Statement on the Every Student Succeeds Act


December 4, 2015

Contact: Ian Gavigan, Education Law Center-PA, 267-825-7713, [email protected]

Education Law Center Statement on the Every Student Succeeds Act

“Since its passage in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a critically important federal law for ensuring educational equity and protecting the civil rights of the most at-risk students. In several ways the proposed reauthorization, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), represents an improvement over existing legislation and reaffirms the ESEA’s crucial mission ‘to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.’ However, the current bill could do much more to protect the rights of the country’s most vulnerable students,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center. Continue reading

Parents, school districts urge courts to intervene in school funding crisis

December 1, 2015

Parents, school districts urge courts to intervene in school funding crisis

Harrisburg, Pa. –Parents and school districts challenging Pennsylvania’s school funding system told the state Supreme Court Monday that it should decide the case on the merits and reject the state’s plea to toss the case because of its complexity and difficulty. In a reply brief filed Monday the petitioners defended their position that the courts can and must examine claims that the state is failing its constitutional obligations to adequately fund “a thorough and efficient system of public education” in a manner which does not discriminate against low-wealth districts. Continue reading