PDE Orders Philadelphia School District to Create New System to Protect Students with Disabilities Experiencing Homelessness

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 30, 2018 Contact: Paul Socolar, Education Law Center, 215-906-1250, [email protected]
PDE Orders Philadelphia School District to Create New System to Protect Students with Disabilities Experiencing Homelessness

Philadelphia – ELC has secured an important victory for unaccompanied students with disabilities experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia and statewide. As a result of a complaint filed by ELC with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), these vulnerable students living on their own will have surrogate parents promptly appointed to enforce their rights in the special education system. Absent the prompt appointment of a surrogate parent, unaccompanied students under age 21 are unable to enforce their legal rights, leaving them without a mechanism to get the services they need in school. Federal law requires school districts to appoint surrogate parents within 30 days to represent unaccompanied students throughout the special education process. It also permits school districts to authorize shelter staff to serve as temporary surrogate parents until a permanent surrogate parent can be appointed. Through our partnerships with shelter providers, ELC learned of two unaccompanied students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia who were not assigned surrogate parents. Both suffered severe educational consequences: one student was pushed through to graduation and forced to forfeit future educational rights; the other student languished in a life-skills classroom that could not meet her needs. In response to ELC’s complaint, a state investigation revealed that both students’ rights were violated and that the District did not have an adequate system to track and assign surrogate parents. Alarmingly, it also found that the District had only assigned two surrogate parents across the District during the previous school year for all children in foster care or experiencing homelessness. In a November 8 Complaint Investigation Report, PDE’s Bureau of Special Education ordered the district to design a new system to ensure surrogate parents are appointed promptly. It also ordered PDE to issue specific guidance to all school districts about their legal obligations to assign surrogate parents. For both named students, the Bureau ordered the immediate assignment of surrogate parents and awarded compensatory education services. “The state’s action in this matter represents vital progress for unaccompanied youth with disabilities, who will now have a system that identifies and serves them,” said Paige Joki, Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellow at the Education Law Center. “As our clients’ cases illustrate, youth who on their own risk being pushed to graduate or being deprived of services they desperately need to succeed in life.” During the 2016-17 school year, over 4,000 students statewide were unaccompanied.

# The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) is a nonprofit, legal advocacy organization with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, 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 learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information, visit elc-pa.org or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

ELC and CASA Philadelphia Webinar for Educational Decision Makers (EDMs)

This webinar was hosted by the Education Law Center-PA and CASA Philadelphia as a training for court-appointed Educational Decision Makers (EDMs) who represent children in foster care to ensure their access to a quality public education. The presentation features an overview of an “EDM Toolkit” prepared by these agencies and includes education issues relating to enrollment, access to special education services, and school discipline.  The Toolkit helps Pennsylvania CASA programs train CASAs to serve as EDM volunteers and serves as an ongoing resource for EDMs to address questions and challenges that encounter in meeting the needs of children in foster care. The Toolkit includes checklists, suggestions, and resources to help EDMs ensure that students who are in foster care have school stability, access to needed services, and achieve academic success.

Click here for the toolkit, here to view the webinar PowerPoint slides, and here to stream a recording of the webinar.

ELC Joins Civil Rights Organizations in Issuing New Report Challenging Curtailment of Important Protections for Children of Color

ELC joined more than a dozen other civil rights organizations in releasing a new report highlighting the ways the Trump Administration is aggressively and intentionally limiting the civil rights protections of children and youth of color in schools. The Report was prepared by the Civil Rights Roundtable, a national coalition of organizations and academic professionals who are experts in the fields of school discipline, civil rights, and disability law. The Report analyzes recent changes in policies, regulations, and enforcement agency action which significantly impact children and youth of color, including reductions in Office of Civil Rights investigations of systemic claims, the proposed rescission of the Title VI discipline guidance, and delay and potential rescission of racial disproportionality regulations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These changes threaten to have a devastating impact on a generation of children and youth of color who are already disproportionately excluded from the classroom. The Report demonstrates that the policy, regulatory, and guidance revisions undertaken by the Trump Administration surpass the ordinary actions of a new administration and should be recognized as an intentional and substantial threat to decades of civil rights protections. The Report highlights a series of important recommendations to change this trajectory. Read the report here.

Philadelphia School Board Testimony on the Need for Additional Resources for Students with Disabilities

At the October 2018 action meeting of the Philadelphia School Board, ELC offered testimony supporting a proposal that would increase transitional training and support services for students with disabilities.  Federal and state law require transition planning for every child beginning at age 14, including requiring school districts to provide every child with a disability with comprehensive services that will help them transition from school to post-school-life.  ELC highlighted the need for additional transitional training and support services for Philadelphia schoolchildren with disabilities and highlighted the role of inadequate state funding and charters in impacting the district’s ability to provide these needed services.

View ELC’s full testimony here: October 2018 School Board Testimony.

Reynelle Brown Staley testifying at the Philadelphia School Board Action meeting.

 

Statement to the State Board of Education on the Model Memorandum of Understanding Between Schools and Police

The PA Safe Schools Act, amended in 2010, requires all Pennsylvania school districts to draw up a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with local law enforcement agencies to govern their working relationship. The state then created a model MOU addressing school-police cooperation, which must be reviewed every two years and guides the drafting of local MOUs.  In September 2018, ELC submitted comments on the model MOU to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education School and University Safety Committee, including recommended changes to avoid the overcriminalization of student behavior and the racial disproportionality in school discipline and police-involved incidents.

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.