ELC’s 2019 Back-to-School Guide for Pennsylvania Public School Students

As students head back to school, Education Law Center (ELC) has compiled and updated a number of “Back-to-School” resources and reminders about laws and policies that families and schools should be aware of this year.

If you have questions about a particular issue at your school, please call ELC’s helpline at 215-238-6970 (Eastern/Central PA) or 412-258-2120 (Western PA).

  1. Enrollment
  2. School Discipline
  3. Truancy
  4. Bullying and Harassment
  5. Students with Disabilities
  6. Early Childhood Education
  7. Students in the Foster Care or Juvenile Justice Systems
  8. Students Experiencing Homelessness
  9. English Learners & Immigrant Students
  10. LGBTQ & Gender-Nonconforming Students


1.  Enrollment

Back-to-School Basics

Students have the right to be enrolled in school within five days of submitting only four documents: proof of the child’s age, proof of where the child lives, immunization records, and a sworn statement of disciplinary record. Schools must be flexible in the types of documents accepted to satisfy these requirements. For example, parents do not need to provide a lease to prove residency. Students who are experiencing homelessness or are in foster care are entitled to immediate enrollment without these documents.

Schools may not require additional information before enrolling a child; e.g. they cannot require state ID, proof of citizenship, nor ask for a Social Security number.

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What’s New?

Starting next school year, 2020-2021, the compulsory school age will change so that children must be enrolled in and attending school at 6 years old, and must attend school until age 18 (or until they graduate, whichever comes sooner). For the 2019-2020 school year, the old rule remains in effect — children must be enrolled in school by age 8 (age 6 in Philadelphia) and remain in school until age 17 or until they graduate.

Remember that charter schools are public schools and must follow the same enrollment rules. For example, they cannot discriminate against students by refusing to enroll students with particular disabilities or service needs. Read more coverage of ELC advocacy on this issue.


2.  School Discipline

Back-to-School Basics:

Students have important rights and protections when facing exclusionary school discipline (e.g., suspension, expulsion, and disciplinary transfer). These include the right to proper notice, the right to ask questions, the right to an appropriate hearing, and in most cases, the right to receive education services in the interim and after exclusion.

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What’s New?

Groundbreaking alternative education reforms! The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to substantially overhaul alternative education programs for students who have been transferred for disciplinary reasons. The agreement requires significant changes for students with disabilities and English learners, with additional changes impacting all students.

This agreement was reached in response to a complaint filed by the Education Law Center in 2013, challenging bias in the state’s alternative programs, known as “Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth” (AEDY). The local and statewide changes required by this agreement are scheduled to go into effect for this 2019-2020 school year. See ELC’s fact sheets linked above for more details about the new rules and sign up for our newsletter for more information on the latest developments and new tools to advocate for your child.


3.  Truancy

Back-to-School Basics:

When a student has six or more unexcused absences, they are considered “habitually truant.” Schools must take certain steps to improve attendance for habitually truant students, including holding attendance improvement conferences to identify and address the reason for absences. If these steps are taken and attendance does not improve, parents and students can face serious consequences, including fines and jail time.

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What’s New?

Compulsory school age refers to the ages at which a child is legally obligated to be enrolled in school. Starting next school year, 2020-2021 , the compulsory school age will change so that children must be enrolled in and attending school at 6 years old, and must attend school until age 18 (or until they graduate, whichever comes sooner). For the 2019-2020 school year, the old rule remains in effect — children must be enrolled in school by age 8 (age 6 in Philadelphia) and remain in school until age 17 or until they graduate.

A new law, Act 39, went into effect in Pennsylvania during the 2018-2019 school year. This law clarifies the responsibilities of charter schools and cyber charters to enforce compulsory school attendance. It also outlines what responsibilities “non-public” schools have in enforcing compulsory school attendance. See our fact sheet on attendance and truancy to learn more.


4.  Bullying and Harassment

Back-to-School Basics:

Bullying and harassment are serious issues that can significantly affect a child’s ability to learn. All students have the right to be free from bullying and harassment in school — whether it is verbal, written, graphic, physical, or online. Pennsylvania schools are required by law to have written policies against bullying and harassment and must investigate and address complaints. Behavior may qualify as harassment if the offensive conduct relates to race, color, national origin/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religion. If your child is experiencing bullying or harassment, keep detailed records of each incident and request in writing that the school take action.

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What’s New?

In July 2019, ELC released a new tool on bullying and harassment, “A Parent’s Guide to Advocacy in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” addressing students’ and parents’ rights and schools’ responsibilities. The guide describes the different legal standards for bullying and harassment, provides advice for parents on documenting incidents, and includes sample complaint letters to provide to schools.


5.  Students with Disabilities 

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)  

Back-to-School Basics:

Students who have a disability that interferes with their learning have the right to a “free appropriate public education” (commonly called a FAPE), a planned program of education and special services that takes account of a student’s individual needs. Special education and related services must be provided by the school free of charge. Parents have the right to participate in the special education process and consent to or refuse particular services. Students with disabilities cannot be punished for behavior that is caused by or related to their disability.

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What’s New?

Students with disabilities who are in alternative schools because of discipline incidents have important new protections due to a landmark settlement between the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. Learn more about students’ rights hereRead more coverage about the settlement and ELC advocacy on this issue.

504 Plans

Back-to-School Basics:

If your child has a health condition, physical, mental, or behavioral impairment that substantially limits a major life activity and needs help to participate in or benefit from education or extracurricular programs, they may qualify for accommodations in school, called a “504 Plan.”

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What’s New?

ELC’s new toolkit for parents seeking support for a child with a health condition describes the process for requesting a 504 Plan and provides a sample request letter to the school, guidance for a physician’s letter, and examples of accommodations that can support students with varied health conditions.


6.  Early Childhood Education

Back-to-School Basics:

Children who receive quality early education do better in kindergarten and in school overall. Publicly funded programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start, and Pre-K Counts offer free early childcare and education programs for children from low-income families. The Early Intervention Service Program provides additional services for children with developmental delays and disabilities at no cost to parents, regardless of income.

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What’s New?

As a result of recent ELC advocacy, Philadelphia’s preschool Early Intervention provider, Elwyn, developed new policies and procedures to address the rights of young children with disabilities experiencing homelessness. Among other changes, the policies establish two liaisons who serve as the primary contacts for parents of children experiencing homelessness and professionals involved in their support. The policies and procedures establish new measures to ensure continuity of services for children experiencing homelessness. For more information, see Elwyn’s policy on children experiencing homelessness.

ELC continues to partner with the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development & Early Learning (OCDEL) to address exclusionary discipline and to promote inclusion in early childhood learning programs. For more information, see OCDEL’s policy on “Reduction of Expulsion and Suspension in Early Childhood Programs” and its policy on “Inclusion of All Children in Early Childhood Programs.”


7.  Students in Foster Care

Back-to-School Basics

Like other public school students, children involved in the foster care or juvenile justice systems have the right to a free public education.

Students in foster care have additional rights to ensure their school environment is stable, even if they change living arrangements. The right to school stability includes the right to remain in the same school even when youth change living placements, the right to enroll in a new school immediately without the required documents, and the right to have an active, involved education decisionmaker.

Students who are placed by court order in a residential facility — including students adjudicated delinquent — are entitled to attend the local public school in the district where the facility is located, unless certain exceptions apply.

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What’s New?

In April 2019, ELC, along with Juvenile Law Center and Dechert LLP, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of youth adjudicated delinquent and placed at Glen Mills Schools. The suit alleges students placed there suffered physical and emotional abuse and were deprived of their right to an education. The complaint contains graphic descriptions that may be hard to read.

Effective in May 2019, a new Juvenile Court rule requires judges to address “school stability and access to public schools” for all juveniles who are removed from home. Rule 148 also emphasizes that a juvenile should attend the local public school while in placement, unless certain exceptions apply. The rule was crafted in part based on ELC’s advocacy.

In June 2019, a new law was passed that will expand access to college for youth who have been in foster care. Starting in the fall of 2020, youth who were in foster care at age 16 or older will be eligible for tuition and fee waivers to attend any public or private college or university in Pennsylvania.

In July 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order creating a new Office of Advocacy and Reform to ensure the safety and support of children and adults in residential care. The order established a new ombudsman for youth and a Council on Reform, tasked with developing a report and recommendations by November 1, 2019.


8.  Students Experiencing Homelessness

Back-to-School Basics

Students in all public schools, both district and charter, who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, are entitled to school stability and immediate enrollment in school, as well as free transportation to and from school. This includes unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness on their own. A federal law, called the McKinney-Vento Act, provides students experiencing homelessness a robust array of protections to ensure equal access to an education, from preschool through high school. These protections do not have a time limit and remain in place until the student is no longer experiencing homelessness. McKinney-Vento eligible students have a right to school stability with transportation provided until the end of the school year in which they secure permanent and adequate housing.

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What’s New?

Education Law Center secured an important victory for students who are experiencing homelessness on their own and have special education needs. These students do not have a way to assert their special education rights without the appointment of a surrogate parent. As a result of a complaint that ELC filed with Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Special Education, the School District of Philadelphia was ordered to create a new system to ensure that surrogate parents are promptly appointed to students who are experiencing homelessness on their own. This system will be in place beginning in school year 2019-20. All school districts across the Commonwealth have been reminded of their obligation to promptly appoint surrogate parents.


9. English Learners & Immigrant Students

Back-to-School Basics:

English learners have many special protections, including the right to learn English (with language instruction such as English as a Second Language), the right to supports, modifications, and accommodations in their core classes, and the right to be free from harassment based on their immigration status. Parents with limited English proficiency (LEP) have the right to receive information about their child’s education in a language they understand.

Remember that all students have the right to attend school, regardless of their immigration status. Schools cannot ask about a student’s immigration status and cannot require a birth certificate or Social Security number before enrolling a child in school.

Need Help?

What’s New?

The 2019 settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) recognized that English learners’ entitlement to language assistance services continues in an alternative discipline setting. The settlement makes clear that English learners can only be placed in alternative education programs that are approved by PDE and provide sufficient language assistance services, such as ESL. Parents have the right to receive information in a language they understand. See ELC’s fact sheet, Alternative Education Programs for Disruptive Youth: New Rules and Guidance for English Learners, for more information about these rights and the state complaint process.

Thanks to years of advocacy by ELC and our community partners, the Pittsburgh Public School Board adopted a new policy  protecting and expanding the rights of immigrant and refugee families and English learners. ELC has been advocating for the expansion and oversight of this new policy. As a result of ELC’s advocacy, the district agreed to formalize its procedures for evaluating English learners with disabilities, to provide LEP parents with targeted information about their rights within the special education process, and to improve the district’s family engagement.


10. LGBTQ & Gender Nonconforming Students

Back-to-School Basics:

LGBTQ and gender-nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (GNC) students have the same rights as other students, including the right to be out and the right to be free from bullying and harassment. Schools must respect the right of transgender students to access facilities and programs aligned with their gender identity.

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What’s New?

Courts have consistently affirmed the rights of transgender people under Title IX’s broad prohibition against discrimination based on sex and sex stereotyping. In Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, a federal appellate court in Pennsylvania held that cisgender students cannot successfully use the Constitution or Title IX to prevent transgender students from accessing facilities that align with the transgender students’ gender identities. ELC stands with the growing number of school districts in Pennsylvania that have enacted clear policies against discrimination based on gender identity. We urge all school districts to support their students with an affirming school environment for transgender and GNC students.

By filing an amicus brief, ELC is supporting a lawsuit currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court arguing that students who are LGBTQ or do not conform to societal gender norms who are bullied should have protection under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Pennsylvania’s antidiscrimination law, when their school fails to intervene to stop ongoing harassment.


Finally, for everyone who cares about public education in Pennsylvania, one of our back-to-school priorities must be to address the state’s inadequate and unfair funding of schools. Far too many children are returning to Pennsylvania schools that are lacking in resources and student supports.

Please join PA Schools Work, the statewide campaign for adequate and equitable funding, and contact your state legislators to tell them they must do more.

Please join us on September 25th as we celebrate 44 years of ensuring access to a quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania.


School funding lawsuit can proceed, judge rules

The landmark Pennsylvania education funding lawsuit filed by ELC and its partners can proceed, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled, as reported by Dale Mezzacappa of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. The judge rejected the argument made by Republican legislative leaders that it has been rendered moot and should be dismissed. Read more here.

In victory for students, Court rules that Pa. school funding lawsuit is not moot

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 21, 2018

Contact: Paul Socolar, Education Law Center, 215-906-1250, [email protected]

Jonathan McJunkin, Public Interest Law Center, 267-546-1305, [email protected] 

In victory for students, Court rules that Pa. school funding lawsuit is not moot

Commonwealth Court dismisses Senator Scarnati’s motion that the case was rendered moot by the adoption of a fair funding formula in 2016

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit challenging the state’s school funding system can move forward, denying a claim by state legislative leaders that the lawsuit was rendered moot by the state’s adoption of a funding formula in 2016.

The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations alleging that the state’s school funding system violates Pennsylvania’s constitution, due to significant underfunding and gross disparities in allocations that penalize students in low-wealth districts.  

The ruling is a significant victory for petitioners in the lawsuit William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al., eliminating a major obstacle to a trial in the case.

Judge Robert Simpson wrote the court order, rejecting claims by Senate President Scarnati and House Speaker Turzai that a change in the school funding formula made the issues in the case moot.

“We are pleased that the court has denied respondents’ baseless attempt to dismiss our lawsuit,” said Education Law Center Legal Director Maura McInerney. “As the court recognized, our challenge to the inadequacy and inequity of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system will persist. We look forward to presenting our case at trial.”

The petitioners’ brief responding to the mootness challenge demonstrated that the spending gap between wealthy and poor school districts has actually widened since the lawsuit was filed, and that state funds available for classroom spending have declined.  Pennsylvania’s school funding formula applies to only a tiny fraction of the state’s K-12 education funding.

“Pennsylvania’s school funding system still deprives students of the resources they need,” said Public Interest Law Center Staff Attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg. “We are talking about the basics: not enough teachers, out-of-date books, and buildings that crumble around the children inside of them. That was the reality when we filed the case, and it continues today.”

Respondents in the case – legislative leaders, the governor, the secretary of education, the department of education, and the state board of education – will finally be required to answer the allegations in the lawsuit. Gov. Wolf opposed the mootness challenge and urged the court to move the case to trial swiftly. Petitioners have requested a scheduling conference and hope to proceed to trial quickly. The date for a trial is not yet known. 

The petitioners in the case are six families, six school districts – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley – the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP of Pennsylvania. In the fall of 2017, in a landmark ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that there are judicially manageable standards for courts to review school funding issues. The state’s highest court remanded the case to Commonwealth Court for a full trial. Since that ruling, two respondents – Senator Scarnati and Representative Turzai – have tried to dismiss the case or further delay trial. A May 2018 Commonwealth Court ruling dismissed most of their preliminary objections but directed parties to file briefs on the issue of mootness.

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The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) is a nonprofit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information, visit elc-pa.org or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to advance the civil, social, and economic rights of communities in the Philadelphia region facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty. We use litigation, community education, advocacy, and organizing to secure their access to fundamental resources and services in the areas of public education, housing, health care, employment, environmental justice and voting. For more information visit www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

State leaders respond to ‘moot’ claim in education funding lawsuit

Delco News Network quotes ELC Legal Director Maura McInerney in an article on Governor Wolf and Senator Joe Scarnati’s opposing briefs on the legal status of ELC’s school funding lawsuit.  They write: “‘The governor recognizes that our public school children continue to suffer the painful consequences of underfunded schools every day. He understands that their need for justice is now,’ said Maura McInerney. ‘There can be no question that a dispute continues to exist regarding the adequacy and equity of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system.'” Read more here.

Child Advocates Seek More Special Ed Funding

The Sanatoga Post writes about the two dozen advocacy organizations that worked together to pressure Pennsylvania lawmakers to increase the money available for special education purposes. The article quotes ELC Attorney Reynelle Brown Staley. Read here.