Education Law Center Recent Successes

ELC’s work is organized around three priority areas: fighting for fair funding, ensuring equal access, and stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. We have made important progress in those areas in recent months.

Read more about our work and highlights of the past year.

ELC Files Complaint Against Charter School, Challenging Refusal to Admit Child with Disability

ELC filed a complaint in Pennsylvania’s Common Pleas Court on October 17, 2019, on behalf of a first-grade student who was illegally denied enrollment in a public charter school on the basis of her disability. ELC contends that this action by Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School (MCSCS) of Philadelphia violates the child’s rights under state law.

“This is a glaring example of explicit and illegal discrimination,” said Margie Wakelin, staff attorney at the Education Law Center. “Unfortunately, it is not an isolated case. Charter schools, just like district schools, need to serve students with disabilities and cannot turn them away.”

ELC filed a petition for a preliminary injunction along with the complaint, seeking a court order directing MCSCS to enroll the student immediately. MCSCS enrolls a tiny percentage of students with disabilities, far below the average percentage of students with IEPs for all charter schools in Philadelphia.

Read our news release here. Read the complaint here.

Read media coverage here, here, and here.

Advocating for Legislative Action to Address Underfunding

ELC policy director Reynelle Brown Staley was among the panelists who testified to the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee public hearing on fair education funding in Coatesville on Aug. 12, attended by over 100 people. Highlighting statements from parents and superintendents across the state, she spoke to the devastating impact of state underinvestment in education, particularly on poor communities of color. Her testimony urged the General Assembly to increase funding for classroom instruction and target state increases to chronically underfunded communities.

Read her testimony here and a news article here.

Lunch-Shaming Must End

In a July 28, 2019, letter to PennLive, ELC legal director Maura McInerney questions new language in the Pennsylvania School Code that allows school districts to serve “alternative lunches” to students whose families have lunch debt. Read her letter.

Open Letter to PA Special Education Funding Commission from PA Schools Work Campaign

The Special Education Funding Commission of the Pennsylvania legislature reconvened August 27, 2019, for the first time in nearly six years to examine the impact of the 2014 funding formula that now directs state special education funding. Education Law Center joined with the statewide PA Schools Work campaign to issue an open letter with a set of recommendations to the commission for addressing the continued state underfunding of education.

Over the past decade, the state’s contribution to special education costs has dropped from a one-third share to just 22%. The letter urges a “fuller and fairer allocation of funding for special education.” The commission will be meeting and holding hearings over a three-month period.

Read the letter.

New! 2019 Back-to-School Guide

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).

Education Law Center Applauds Gov. Wolf’s Call for Charter Reform

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced August 13 that he is preparing to introduce regulations and propose new legislation governing the state’s charter schools. The Education Law Center shares his sense of urgency in addressing the issues of poor academic performance, equity concerns, and rapidly growing costs of charters and looks forward to working with state officials to implement changes that rectify these problems. Our statement is here.

Save the Date! ELC Fall Celebration: Fighting the Good Fight

Please join us at 5:30 PM on September 25, 2019, at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia as we celebrate our work ensuring access to quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania.

We hope you will join us and our event co-chairs, Joan Mazzotti and Michael Kelly, to honor our 2019 Champions of Education, including:

  • Jamilia Blake, Ph.D. and Rebecca Epstein, Esq., authors of Girlhood Interrupted: the Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, a leading report on the adultification bias facing Black girls.
  • Bentley Systems, Incorporated, a global software development company focused on sustaining the world’s infrastructure, with a demonstrated and passionate commitment to STEM education programs for elementary school students in Pennsylvania.  
  • Opera Philadelphia, one of the most innovative opera companies in the nation that also addresses the gap in arts education and access in the Greater Philadelphia region through an intensive, in-school, literacy-based music education program and robust after-school programs.
  • Pro Bono Honorees Jennifer Fox Rabold, Esq. and Susie Kernen of FedEx Ground, for their work administering a trust on behalf of children living in a group home who had been denied access to an appropriate education.

If you would like to speak with an ELC staff member regarding buying tickets or sponsoring ELC’s event, please contact Allegra Abramson at (215) 278-9765 or [email protected]. Otherwise, please visit our ticket site below:

Click Here for Tickets

Governor’s Executive Order Calls for Reform of Residential Placements: A Joint Statement With Juvenile Law Center

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order on July 31, creating a new Office of Advocacy and Reform, with a new Child Advocate position to act as an ombudsman for youth in the state’s residential facilities. The order establishes a 25-member Council on Reform, tasked with developing a report and recommendations by Nov. 1 to ensure the safety and support of children and adults in residential care. ELC and Juvenile Law Center issued a joint statement supporting the governor’s action and highlighting the importance of reducing reliance on residential placements and providing a quality education for children placed in such settings.

CeaseFirePA, Education Law Center Statement on Bill Authorizing Arming More School Personnel

Senate Bill 621, which broadens the categories of school personnel who can carry weapons in schools, approved by the Pennsylvania legislature, was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on July 2, 2019. The Education Law Center and CeaseFirePA had opposed the bill and urged the governor to veto it. In a joint statement on the bill, the two organizations point out that Gov. Wolf’s interpretation of the bill is that it excludes non-security personnel from being armed in schools. The bill, however, does allow school security guards, including personnel from private security firms, to carry weapons in schools.

Read the joint statement.

Funding Increases in PA Budget Are Welcomed but Not Sufficient, ELC Says

The tentative budget agreement between Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf and legislative leaders that was announced on June 24 includes a significant boost in special education funding. There are other bright spots in the budget, but state education funding still falls far below what is needed. ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr issued a statement on the budget on June 25, 2019.

Read the statement.

Class Action Suit Against Glen Mills Schools and Pa. Officials Cites Abuse of Children, Deprivation of Education

Lawyers from the Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and Dechert LLP filed a class action lawsuit April 11 in Philadelphia on behalf of hundreds of youth who were held at Glen Mills Schools, a residential facility located in Delaware County. This site, the oldest reform school in the country, housed as many as 1,000 boys from all over the country – and the world – at one time. After an emergency removal order of all remaining children at the facility as well as the revocation of its licenses by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, it is currently empty; these actions followed groundbreaking investigative reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Lisa Gartner.

The legal team from Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and Dechert LLP

The suit maintains that these youth housed at Glen Mills suffered at the hands of Glen Mills leadership and staff. Instead of receiving treatment and services, as required by the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, plaintiffs claim that they were subjected to extreme and sustained physical and psychological abuse and deprived of an education. The abuse had a particularly dire impact on youth of color – the vast majority of Glen Mills youth were African American – as well as students with special education needs and disabilities, whose educational and other rights were ignored.

The suit asserts that officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Chester County Intermediate Unit allowed Glen Mills’ education program to operate in the shadows without any oversight or monitoring to ensure the educational rights of students. The suit also maintains that the persistent and barbaric abuse went unchecked due to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services “callous disregard for the safety and well-being of the children in its care.” PA-DHS is the body responsible for the licensing, oversight and regulation of child residential facilities in the Commonwealth.

Plaintiffs seek damages as well as other equitable relief for violations of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act,  and state common law claims.

Read our press release here.

Read our complaint here.

Read press coverage of the lawsuit here, here, and here.


ELC Applauds U.S. DOJ Agreement to Overhaul PA’s Alternative Education Programs to Protect Students with Disabilities and English Learners but Says Agreement Ignores Racial Disparities


The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a comprehensive agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), settling a federal civil rights investigation triggered by the Education Law Center’s 2013 complaint challenging discriminatory practices in the state’s disciplinary “alternative education” programs.  Read ELC’s full news release here.

The programs covered by the agreement are known as Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (AEDY) programs. ELC’s civil rights complaint reported that at the time more than 14,000 students in Pennsylvania were segregated in the state’s 700+ approved AEDY programs.

“If the state implements and builds on what is now on paper, this new agreement has the potential to significantly transform alternative education in Pennsylvania in a positive direction,” said ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “The Education Law Center will be working with parents, students, and other stakeholders to ensure that the detailed remedies are implemented promptly and with fidelity by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to both protect the students already in these programs and students who could be improperly placed in them.”

Education Law Center’s complaint highlighted the high percentages of students with disabilities and African American students in AEDY programs across the state. In 82 Pennsylvania school districts, more than half the students sent to AEDY programs were students with disabilities, compared to a 16 percent special education population statewide. African American students comprised 35 percent of the students placed into alternative education programs, yet only 15 percent of Pennsylvania students.

See ELC’s fact sheet about exiting alternative education programs, with tips for parents of students with disabilities.

Our Report Highlights Civil Rights Concerns in Philadelphia Charter Schools

A new report by the Education Law Center, citing widespread noncompliance by charter schools with civil rights protections for students, urges Philadelphia’s Board of Education to monitor the city’s charter sector more closely and guard against discriminatory enrollment and educational practices.

The new study, “Safeguarding Educational Equity: Protecting Philadelphia Students’ Civil Rights Through Charter Oversight,” highlights data about the student population at charter schools and information compiled by the Charter School Office regarding compliance with certain measures designed to protect the rights of historically marginalized student groups, such as students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color.

ELC’s analysis focuses on the city’s “traditional charters” – excluding cyber schools and charter schools that are converted former district neighborhood schools. The report provides strong evidence that these traditional charter schools are not sharing equitably in the responsibility of educating all Philadelphia students. ELC’s analysis found that the demographic makeup of students in traditional charters in Philadelphia is strikingly different from the population in District schools in four key respects:

  • The population of economically disadvantaged students is 14 percentage points lower in the traditional charter sector (56%) vs. the district sector (70%).
  • The percentage of English learners in District schools (11%) is nearly three times higher than in traditional charters (4%), with three in ten charters having no English learners at all.
  • Few of the special education students in traditional charters are from the low-incidence disability categories, such as autism and intellectual disability, that typically are most expensive to serve.
  • The vast majority of traditional charter schools serve student populations that are two-thirds or more of one racial group – a significantly higher degree of segregation than is found in District schools.

The report contends that many of these demographic differences are a result of charter school practices. The School District’s own charter school evaluations frequently flag areas where charters fail to comply with laws or policies protecting students’ civil rights. However, enforcement is lacking. The School District’s scoring system used to evaluate charters permits a charter school to earn a renewal even if it has failing scores in the English learner, special education, and enrollment categories.

Charter schools are not serving a comparable population to district schools, which raises doubts about any claims that traditional charter schools outperform district schools. The concentration of more advantaged students in traditional charter schools and more disadvantaged students in district schools is unfair to all students and is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue.

The report was requested by the Student Achievement and Support Committee of the Philadelphia Board of Education after ELC raised concerns about inequities in charter schools in testimony last fall. While ELC and other civil rights advocates have raised concerns about the state charter school law, the report points out the need and possibility under existent laws for stronger charter school accountability measures at the local level.

The report spells out recommendations for action by the Board in its role of authorizing and renewing charter schools, including looking beyond academic and financial performance to also focus on issues of equity, changing the performance framework used to evaluate charters so that equity issues are prioritized, and expanding the capacity of the Charter School Office to provide adequate oversight.

The report is available here.

ELC Responds to 2019-20 Budget Proposal of Gov. Wolf

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced his proposed 2019-20 budget before the General Assembly on Feb. 5. The Education Law Center and other child advocacy groups had urged the governor to make a bold school funding proposal, including $400 million in new funds for basic education and $100 million for special education. The increases in is K-12 spending plan, which will be debated by the legislature over the next few months, were roughly half of what advocates had called for, though the governor did also propose significant increases in funding for pre-K and early intervention.

ELC issued a statement on the budget proposal, urging Harrisburg officials “to do more to accelerate state aid to the state’s most disadvantaged school districts.” The statewide PA Schools Work coalition, of which ELC is a member, also published a statement raising many of the same themes.

Third Circuit Issues Groundbreaking Precedential Decision Regarding Rights of Homeless Students

In response to a motion filed by ELC, the Third Circuit has re-issued its opinion in G.S. vs. Rose Tree Media School District as precedential, which means that the Court’s opinion can be used to support arguments in similar cases in other courts.  ELC filed the motion following a positive ruling which marked a major victory for students living “doubled-up” who are often under-identified as homeless by schools. The Court’s ruling held in part that the McKinney-Vento Act “does not impose a limit on the duration of homelessness” and schools cannot unilaterally declare a child ineligible when the child’s circumstances remain unchanged.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Homeless Children’s Education Fund, and People’s Emergency Center joined ELC in filing the motion. The Third Circuit is the first federal appellate court to address the educational provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act.  Thank you to our pro-bono partners at Morgan, Lewis, and Bockius LLP for their assistance on the initial amicus brief filed in this case.

ELC Files Comments with the US Department of Education Concerning Proposed Title IX Regulations

The Education Law Center (ELC) filed comments strongly opposing the Department of Education’s (DOE) proposed rules regarding Title IX investigations. The proposed rules would protect schools from liability at the expense of the students who are most likely to experience sexual harassment: 78% of LGBTQ K–12 students in Pennsylvania are harassed on the basis of their sexual orientation, 58% on the basis of their gender expression, and 52% on the basis of their gender;  60% of Black girls are sexually harassed before the age of 18;  56% of students ages 14-18 who are pregnant or parenting are kissed or touched without their consent;  and students with disabilities are 2.9 times more likely than their peers to be sexually assaulted.


“Unfortunately, the Education Law Center often has to push schools to take any action in the face of a student’s harassment allegations,” said Lizzy Wingfield, ELC’s Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow. “These proposed rules would actually lower schools’ obligations under Title IX and make it harder for advocates to ensure student safety is taken seriously. ELC urges the Department of Education to withdraw the proposed rules and instead focus its energies on enforcing the existing Title IX requirements to ensure schools promptly and effectively respond to sexual harassment.”


You can read our comments here.

Youth in Pa. Residential Institutions: Unsafe, Disconnected, Denied Quality Education

This column by ELC legal director Maura McInerney and Juvenile Law Center staff attorney Kate Burdick highlights the urgent need to address harmful practices in Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice and child welfare residential facilities. Two recent reports laid out the harm being done to children in these placements – and proposed needed reforms, including bringing children back to their communities. The column was published by WHYY.

Improving Supports for Philadelphia’s 15,000 English Learner Students

In January 2019 testimony about English learners to the Philadelphia school board’s Student Achievement and Support Committee, Education Law Center Legal Director Maura McInerney brought attention to reductions in ESL instruction and support, barriers to special education evaluations and services, the failure to provide interpretation and translation services, and lack of access to special admission schools and post-secondary college and career readiness support. Read her testimony here.

ELC also joined with partners to submit a formal letter to the committee requesting a separate hearing focused exclusively on EL students. Read the letter here.