Fighting for Fair School Funding
William Penn SD et al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et al. (Pa. Commonwealth Court, 2018)
Chronology of the case
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial beginning November 12, 2021. Read our latest press release about the case and trial schedule.
The case, initially filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure of Pennsylvania’s legislature to adequately and equitably fund public education, was remanded to Commonwealth Court in September 2017 by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the claims in our case are subject to judicial review.
Following oral argument on March 7, 2018, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled in our favor on May 7, 2018, in this case, overruling a set of objections filed by state legislative leaders and moving our school funding lawsuit closer to trial. The court spelled out the next steps in the case, directing the parties to address two issues before it goes to trial: Whether the state’s adoption of education funding formula renders the case moot and whether education is an important or fundamental right under Pennsylvania law. Read more in the May 7, 2018, news release.
Our brief filed July 6, 2018, refuted the argument made by then-respondent Sen. Scarnati that the funding formula renders the case moot, pointing out the decline in funding available for classroom expenses and the widening gaps in spending between low-wealth and high-wealth districts. Read more in the July 6, 2018, news release. The respondents also filed briefs on whether the case is moot, as described in the August 7, 2018, news release.
The court denied the respondents’ petition to dismiss the case as moot in an order issued August 21, 2018, clearing the way for the case to move toward trial, as described in this news release.
In a scheduling order issued on December 6, 2018, the court set a tentative trial date for 2020, as described in this news release. In the two years following this order, the court issued several briefing orders and updated the schedule. In summer 2020, the parties completed the extensive pre-trial phase known as discovery, when each party was gathering evidence to support their case through documents, witness statements, and other means. Over the course of the discovery process, the parties completed more than 70 depositions. The parties have exchanged multiple expert reports and rebuttals. Filings relating to motions for summary judgment were submitted in late 2020. The court issued rulings on those motions in early 2021, the last major step before scheduling the case for trial; read our March 2021 news release.
In an April 1, 2021 order, the court set a schedule for pretrial filings and tentatively scheduled the trial for the fall. In summer 2021, the court ruled on several motions in limine (motions to limit evidence), denying a motion by respondents to preclude the introduction of evidence of racial disparities.
The court has now scheduled trial to begin on November 12, 2021 in Courtroom 3002 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. Commonwealth Court judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer will continue to preside over the case. We expect trial to run through December. At a pre-trial conference on June 21, 2021, Judge Jubelirer said that trial will be held five days a week and that a livestream will be available to the public. A final pretrial conference is scheduled for Sept. 29, 2021.
Key court documents
Commonwealth Court Order Setting Oral Argument (1/31/2018)
Decision Overruling Preliminary Objections (5/7/2018)
Response of Senator Scarnati on Mootness (8/3/2018)
Response of Governor Wolf on Mootness (8/3/2018)
Scarnati Application for Decision on Mootness (8/13/2018)
Answer and New Matter: State Board of Education (9/20/2018)
Answer and New Matter: Sen. Scarnati (9/19/2018)
Answer and New Matter: Rep. Turzai (9/19/2018)
Answer and New Matter: Gov. Wolf (9/19/2018)
Opposition to Scheduling Conference: Rep. Turzai (9/21/2018)
Scheduling Order (12/6/2018)
Order Granting Application for Extension (9/12/2019)
Order Granting Application for Extension (11/20/2019)
Order Granting Application for Extension (1/24/2020)
Order Granting Application for Extension (3/20/2020)
Order Granting Application for Extension (5/28/2020)
Order Filed for Oral Argument (5/29/2020)
Order Granting Application for Extension (8/10/20)
Order Granting Application for Extension (9/24/20)
Order Granting Application for Extension (4/1/2021 – includes tentative trial start date)
Scheduling Order (6/22/21)
Memorandum Opinion on Post-2014 Evidence (7/23/21)
Scheduling Order (8/18/2021)
Scheduling Order (9/17/2021)
William Penn SD et al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et al. (Pa., 2017)
On September 28, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education.
The lawsuit – William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. – was filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure in Harrisburg to adequately fund public education and provide students with the resources they need to succeed academically.
In a sweeping decision, the Court agreed that it has a clear duty to consider the case and ensure legislative compliance with the state’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of claims by parents and school districts that the legislature’s grossly unequal funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities. Read the decision here.
William Penn SD et. al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et. al. (Pa., 2015)
On Sept. 20, 2015, public school parents, school districts, and two statewide associations continued their legal challenge of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system, telling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the availability of a high-quality public education in Pennsylvania will continue to be a “function of community wealth rather than a constitutional guarantee” unless the Court agrees to hear the legal challenge.
Read more at ELC and PILC’s website about the case, available here.
William Penn SD et. al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et. al. (Pa. Commw. Ct., 2014)
The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia filed suit in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on November 10, 2014 on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations against legislative leaders, state education officials, and the Governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.
R.S.B. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education et.al. (Commonwealth Court, 2012)
In June 2012, after granting expedited review and oral argument en banc, the Commonwealth Court dismissed as moot ELC’s Emergency Petition for Mandamus filed on behalf of families facing potential school closures in fiscally-distressed Chester Upland School District. However, as a result of a separate action filed in federal court and a Motion for Intervention filed on behalf of students of the District by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), in August U.S. Federal District Judge Micheal Baylson approved a settlement agreement between the Chester Upland School District and the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) requiring the State to repay past debt and fully fund operating expenses for the 2012-13 school year. Key provisions of the settlement agreement also require additional attention to and improvement of the school district’s special education services.
For more information on this settlement go to: http://pilcop.org/chester/
SDP v. Walter D. Palmer Charter School – Amicus Curiae (PA Supreme Court)
The Education Law Center filed an August 21, 2013 Amicus Curiae in support of the School District of Philadelphia in its case to maintain legally negotiated and agreed-upon charter school enrollment caps. “We find the District’s argument to be clearly correct on the legal merits and because an affirmation of the lower court’s decision would inevitably result in unfettered charter expansion and damage the overall quality of public education in Pennsylvania, particularly for the vulnerable student populations we seek to protect,” ELC wrote.
Ensuring Equal Access
D.W. v. The Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia
ELC filed this complaint in Pennsylvania’s Common Pleas Court in October 2019 on behalf of first-grade student D.W., 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 of Philadelphia violates the child’s rights under state law.
ELC filed a petition for a preliminary injunction along with the complaint, seeking a court order directing MCSCS to enroll D.W. immediately.
Wible v. School District of Philadelphia (Pa. Commonwealth Court, 2019): ELC Files Amicus Brief on Gender-Based School Bullying, Harassment
The Education Law Center has co-authored and filed an amicus brief, along with the Women’s Law Project, in a landmark bullying case supporting a former Philadelphia School District student who sued the district for its deliberate indifference to her gender-based harassment and abuse. Wible v. School District of Philadelphia is a significant case because the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court may clarify the extent to which educational institutions are liable for student-on-student sexual harassment under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
This clarification is especially important given that the Trump administration has not shown a commitment to support students’ rights to pursue allegations of sexual harassment and assault under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Pennsylvania students have the right under state law to hold their educational institution accountable for failing to adequately address student-to-student harassment.
In re J.L. amicus challenges placement of child in residential institution based purely on truancy
ELC, along with Juvenile Law Center (JLC), filed an amicus brief in the case In re J.L. in Pennsylvania Superior Court, challenging a judge’s decision to remove a student, J.L., from his parents and place the child in a residential institution based purely on the student’s non-attendance at school.
Despite the student’s status as a student with a disability and allegations that he was bullied in school, the judge removed J.L. from his parents—parents the judge acknowledged were loving and vigilant—without inquiring into interventions that would address the student’s truancy in light of his disability or the alleged bullying. ELC filed the amicus to educate the court on best practices to addressing truancy and to urge against the extreme and traumatic step of removing students from their homes based purely on truancy. Out-of-home placements put children at risk of negative life outcomes – including contact with the criminal justice system and further disengagement from school.
Nicole B. v. School District of Philadelphia, et al. (PA Supreme Court 2019)
The Education Law Center (ELC) filed amicus briefing in Nicole B. v. School District of Philadelphia, et al., a case involving a Philadelphia student who was relentlessly bullied because of his race and nonconformance with gender stereotypes; the school failed to intervene and allowed the bullying to escalate from verbal harassment, to multiple physical assaults, and, ultimately, to rape.
In July 2018, ELC partnered with DLA Piper, the Public Interest Law Center, and Juvenile Law Center in arguing that this student, and others like him, should have protection under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), Pennsylvania’s antidiscrimination law, when their school fails to intervene to stop ongoing harassment.
“Unfortunately, the Education Law Center hears frequently from families about issues of bullying and harassment in schools,” said Lizzy Wingfield, ELC’s Stoneleigh Foundation Emerging Leader Fellow. “The issue of unaddressed bullying is pervasive and is particularly common when the bullied student is a child of color who does not conform to societal gender norms or is LGBTQ. Too many people who should intervene to stop bullying view the harassment of gender-nonconforming or LGBTQ students of color as if it is normal, so they don’t take it as seriously as the bullying of white, gender-conforming students. That’s why it is so critical that the PHRA is available as a tool to root out discriminatory pervasive bullying.”
The Commonwealth Court refused to consider the merits of the case because N.B., who was nine at the time he was raped, did not file his claim within 180 days of the incident. A legal doctrine known as minority tolling generally means that the time bar for bringing a child’s claim does not begin until the child turns 18, but the court ruled that minority tolling does not apply to PHRA claims. Minority tolling is a vital protection for Pennsylvania’s children, as it is fundamentally unfair to hold children like N.B. to the same statute of limitations as adults.
In addition to our brief filed in Commonwealth Court, ELC filed an amicus brief requesting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court review the Commonwealth Court’s ruling and ensure that children who experience discrimination in school can benefit from the protections of the PHRA. The PA Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and in August 2019, ELC submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court, joined by Juvenile Law Center, Public Interest Law Center, Women’s Law Project, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and Professor Emily Suski. WHYY covered this story.
In September 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled favorably in the case, holding that bullying victims have until six months after their 18th birthday to bring discrimination complaints under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. ELC staff attorney Kristina Moon commented, “By recognizing that minor children should not be subjected to a short, 180-day statute of limitations in filing claims with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the court has affirmed the right of students and former students to challenge wrongful racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and other discriminatory conduct in schools.” WHYY reported on the Supreme Court ruling in the case.
In Re B.B. ODR No. 18909-16-17-KE
ELC recently won a case that clarifies for the first time the responsibility of the PA Department of Education to provide transportation to children who are eligible for early intervention services in Philadelphia. ELC attorneys Sean McGrath and Maura McInerney brought the case on behalf of a three-year-old boy with autism who endured a series of inappropriate and unsafe transportation arrangements that regularly made him late to his special education program. Prior to this decision, it was unclear whether the State, the School District of Philadelphia, or Elwyn, its contracted service provider, was responsible for ensuring safe, timely, and appropriate transportation for our youngest learners under state law. The decision makes clear that this duty falls squarely and directly on the Department. The ruling will not only improve this child’s transportation arrangements, but requires the Department to address its responsibility to ensure timely and safe transportation for other similarly situated young children with disabilities. There are over 1,000 young children in Philadelphia who require transportation to receive early intervention services.
Issa v. School District of Lancaster (3d Cir., 2016)
The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and pro bono counsel Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit on July 19, 2016, alleging that the School District of Lancaster (SDOL) has been illegally refusing to enroll older immigrant students with limited English proficiency or diverting them to an inferior, privately operated disciplinary school, rather than allowing them to attend the district’s regular high school. The plaintiffs include six refugees aged 17-21 from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burma who have fled war, violence, and persecution in their native countries.
The problem of school districts refusing to enroll LEP students or placing them in sub-standard programs appears to be increasing around the country. This is the third federal lawsuit filed on this issue in the past fifteen months, with earlier cases filed against school districts in Utica, New York, and Collier County, Florida.
Click here to download a copy of the complaint. The case has been assigned Case No. 16-cv-3881.
Click here to view the original press release from July, 2016.
Click here to view the press release in response to the court’s decision from August, 2016.
Click here to view the court’s ruling on August 26, 2016.
Click here to view the Third Circuit’s decision from January 30, 2017.
Click here to view our January 30, 2017 press release.
T.R. et. al. v. School District of Philadelphia (E.D. Pa., 2015)
A federal class action lawsuit filed August 21, 2015 alleges that thousands of parents and their children are illegally denied the opportunity to participate in the special education process due to the fact that they don’t understand or speak English. The complaint alleges that the School District of Philadelphia refuses to sufficiently interpret or provide parents with translated documents in a timely manner, preventing them from participating in meetings and making informed decisions regarding educational placements and services. The lawsuit was filed by the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP on behalf of a class of children with disabilities and their parents who are Limited English Proficient.
A.M. v. School District of Philadelphia and PA Dept. of Education (2013)
This administrative complaint of 2013, resulted in state establishing proactive obligation of school districts to ensure appointment of “surrogate parents” for children with disabilities in foster care residential placements, adoption of new monitoring procedures, and issuance of new state guidance.
N.C. v. Easton Area School District (U.S. District Court – Eastern District, 2013)
The Education Law Center filed this Dec. 10, 2013 lawsuit on behalf of two students experiencing homelessness who have recently been dis-enrolled from their public schools due to lack of residency. Plaintiff N.C. is a senior in high school who is on track to graduate and his brother, Plaintiff N.G.C., an 8th grade student. Both children have special education needs and have attended school in Easton Area School District all their lives.
The two students are currently back in school pending a judge’s ruling on the case.
T.P. v. McKeesport, (Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, 2012)
On August 23, 2012, the Court granted final approval of a Class Action Settlement Agreement providing comprehensive relief to over 300 former residents of a group home who were educated in a segregated and more limited educational setting at McKeesport Area School District.
The lawsuit, filed by ELC in partnership with Pittsburgh-based KidsVoice, claimed that the District violated state and federal laws by treating residents of the group home in a discriminatory manner and denying them access to the full range of educational opportunities afforded to residents of the District. The Settlement Agreement approved by the Court ensures that all students residing in the group home will have full access to educational opportunities in regular public schools. In addition, the Agreement provides supplemental educational services to all students and compensatory education services to students with disabilities who resided in the group home.
Ridley School District, Appellee v. M.R. and J.R., parents of E.R., A Minor, Appellants (3d Cir., 2012)
This case, filed in February 2011, involves an issue of first impression in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the meaning of the IDEA’s requirement that the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services in a child’s IEP be “based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable.” The case was argued in front of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on March 19, 2012.
S.S. v. Gov. Mifflin School District (C.P. Berks County, 2012)
Preliminary injunction granted; district was court ordered to immediately enroll 5-year-old child in foster care who had been turned away for failure to meet kindergarten registration deadline.
Pyramid Health, Inc. v. Quakertown Community School District (2010)
This complaint resulted in corrective action report requiring school district to provide a full day of instruction and an educational program that is “equally effective” as that afforded to non-disabled peers including, access to public school to youth residing in drug rehab residential placement who had previously received only 5 per week of education.
Derrick F. v. Red Lion Area School District (M.D. Pa., 2008)
Preliminary injunction granted to enforce a hearing officer’s decision to include a 10-year-old student who is deaf and blind in regular education.
Pardini v. Allegheny County Intermediate Unit (W.D. Pa., 2007)
Establishing, under IDEA, right of pre-school child with disabilities to smooth transition to school-age services and pendency.
Donovan K. v. PA Department of Public Welfare (Eastern District of PA, 2010)
This case, filed March 2009, settled May 2010, sought early intervention services for very young, medically fragile children with multiple disabilities who are living in nursing facilities.
L.R. v. Steelton-Highspire School District (M.D. Pa., 2010)
This case established enforceable rights of students experiencing homelessness to remain in the same school despite duration of homelessness.
A.E. v. Carlynton School District (W.D. Pa., 2009)
This case challenged exclusion of highly mobile students experiencing homelessness to enroll in school when it was difficult to establish a school of origin or where the family was living. The decision resulted in state policy that, among other things, now ensures enrollment that allows homeless families to establish residency in a district where they have a substantial connection.
Velazquez v. East Stroudsburg Area School District (Pa. Comm. Ct., 2008)
This case gave students who were receiving child support payments and living with relative the right to enroll in school under state law.
Stopping the School to Prison Pipeline
Derrick et al. v. Glen Mills Schools et al.
Lawyers from Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and Dechert LLP filed a class action lawsuit April 11, 2019, 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.
The suit maintains that 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 Black youth – disproportionately sent to Glen Mills – as well as students with special education needs and disabilities, whose educational rights were ignored.
The defendants named are: Glen Mills Schools; Teresa D. Miller, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in her individual capacity; Theodore Dallas, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services in his individual capacity; Cathy Utz, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Children, Youth and Families in her individual capacity; Pedro A. Rivera, Secretary of Education of the Pennsylvania Department of Education in his official capacity; Pennsylvania Department of Education; Chester County Intermediate Unit; Randy Ireson, former Executive Director of Glen Mills Schools; Andre Walker; Robert Taylor; Sean Doe; Chris Doe 1; Chris Doe 2; and John Does 1-20. Named plaintiffs include youth and families from Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., Luzerne County, Pa., and Monroe County, Pa.
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. 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.
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, the Glen Mills facility is currently empty; these actions followed groundbreaking investigative reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Lisa Gartner.
Read our April 2019 press release here.
Read our complaint here.
Read our comprehensive brief here, filed Aug. 30, 2019, opposing multiple motions to dismiss.
S.A. by H.O. v. Pittsburgh Public School District (PA Commonwealth Court, 2017)
This case affirms the limits of the weapons possession statute, commonly referred to as “Act 26.” The Court agreed with the Education Law Center’s attorneys who argued that Pennsylvania law limits the scope of the definition to objects that are similar or comparable to the expressly-listed weapons, including guns and knives. School districts will no longer be able to use Act 26 to discipline students for misbehavior unrelated to the possession of a weapon. This case is particularly poignant, given the national, state and local data showing that expulsions are disproportionally used for Black and brown students, even though there is no evidence that these differences are due to different types or rates of behavior than white students.
Key Court Documents:
Commonwealth Court Opinion (5/1/2017)
ELC’s Commonwealth Court Brief (2/15/2017)
Common Pleas Court Ruling (Memo andOrder of Court) (8/29/2016)
K.G. v. Central Dauphin School District (C.P. Dauphin County, 2012)
Court ordered school district to enroll youth returning from juvenile justice placement and living with grandparents in school and prohibited district from placing student in any alternative or non-standard setting without consent of the court.
Rivera v. Maria de Hostas Charter School (Pa. Commonwealth Court, 2012)
Held that charter school abused its discretion by permanently expelling a 2nd grader for truancy.
Christian D. v. First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy (C.P. Phila. County, 2011)
Court held that charter school abused its discretion by permanently expelling a kindergarten student.