WHYY reports on residency enforcement policies that disproportionately affect students of color, quoting ELC Legal Director Maura McInerney. Read more here.
The Education Law Center sent an open letter to Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission expressing renewed concern about issues of equity and universal access at Philadelphia charter schools. Data from the District’s Annual Charter Evaluations indicate that vulnerable student populations are underserved by the charter sector. The letter endorses the School District’s efforts to build a more robust Charter School Office. Read more here.
On January 19, 2018, ELC joined 23 other organizations, including teachers, other school workers, school administrators, school boards, advocates, faith-based organizations, and non-partisan civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters, to oppose PA Senate Bill 2. The Bill is a school voucher proposal masquerading as an Education Savings Account program. The Bill is a direct attack on public education itself, because it would divert tax dollars to private and religious schools that have no accountability to the public and no obligation to provide (for example) special education, other services to children with disabilities, or services to English Language Learners. Read the letter here and please call your PA Senator to help protect public education in Pennsylvania by urging him or her to oppose this regressive proposal.
PennLive Op-Ed – Dec. 24, 2015 – By Deborah Gordon Klehr and Jackie Perlow:
Earlier this month President Barack Obama signed into law a comprehensive overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), previously known as No Child Left Behind.
First passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the mission of this federal law is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”
While past iterations of ESEA have failed to fulfill this promise, this month’s reauthorization offers states like Pennsylvania an opportunity to reaffirm ESEA’s central mission to advance educational equity and protect the civil rights of vulnerable students.
In several ways this reauthorization, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), represents an improvement over existing legislation.
It will provide targeted support to struggling schools, including schools where traditionally overlooked student groups consistently underperform.
The new ESSA does more to hold schools responsible for the achievement of English language learners, including those with disabilities, and provides significant educational protections for children in foster care and those experiencing homelessness.
The law also expands educational opportunities for youth in the juvenile justice system and supports their smooth transition both into and out of juvenile justice school placements.
In addition, we know that many vulnerable students experience trauma, and ESSA also takes positive steps to support schools to recognize and address trauma. We applaud these important new provisions.
However, the Education Law Center remains concerned about whether the new law has the teeth to guarantee a quality public education to our state’s most vulnerable students.
On its face, the changes in ESSA will do little to improve resource inequities, discipline disparities, or the lack of opportunities for educationally at-risk students in Pennsylvania.
Most worrisome, however, is the law’s lack of federal oversight and accountability.
Under ESSA, much of the responsibility for ensuring educational opportunities for vulnerable students has been shifted to the states.
Both current research and our experience in Pennsylvania show that when states are given unfettered control over education, the civil rights of the most educationally vulnerable students often go unprotected and their academic outcomes suffer.
We are concerned that without federal oversight, schools in Pennsylvania may ignore the needs of the educationally vulnerable students they serve.
In no area is this concern more pressing than when it comes to school discipline. Under No Child Left Behind, schools faced harsh consequences if students failed to achieve on high-stakes testing.
This focus on standardized test scores incentivized schools to push out the students who posed the greatest challenges.
At the same time, states largely turned a blind eye to the resulting discipline practices that disproportionately excluded students of color and students with disabilities.
While data shows that students of all races violate school rules at the same rate, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
The consequences of punitive discipline reach far beyond missing a day or two of class.
Students who are suspended even once in ninth grade are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school.
We know that unless the state actively holds itself accountable for eliminating existing discipline disparities, discriminatory and overly punitive discipline practices will continue to act as barriers for our most vulnerable students.
While ESSA will not require Pennsylvania to address these disparities, it does offer an opportunity to do so.
Under ESSA, each state is charged with developing an accountability plan. This plan must include three academic factors and one non-academic factor.
The law permits states to choose “school climate” – a broad term that encompasses suspensions, expulsions, and removal to alternative education settings – as the non-academic factor in their accountability plan.
The Education Law Center urges Pennsylvania to take advantage of this opportunity and identify school climate as the fourth factor in its accountability plan.
We also caution Pennsylvania not to replicate the incentives in No Child Left Behind that drove schools to adopt exclusionary discipline practices in a failed attempt to improve school performance.
Rather, the state’s renewed attention to an accountability framework should address improving academic performance in tandem with addressing school discipline.
This opportunity is timely because the Wolf administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have recently announced plans to revamp the state’s current and flawed School Performance Profile metric, which often penalizes schools impacted by poverty rather than rewarding progress.
However, including this factor is only the first step. As the state begins the process of developing and implementing its accountability plan, it is vital that Pennsylvania engage parents, students, advocates, and educators in these decisions.
We urge the state to seek out communities and leaders with diverse perspectives and include their voices at every step in the accountability plan process.
Only by holding ourselves accountable for eliminating the barriers that harm vulnerable students and providing schools with the resources they need to support them will Pennsylvania be able to avoid the shortcomings of the ESSA and ensure that all students in the state receive the quality education they deserve.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is the Executive Director of the Education Law Center. Jackie Perlow, Esq. is the Kaufman Legal Fellow at the Education Law Center.
He is proposing a plan that would drastically reduce the amount the district pays for charter special education students.
Without immediate action, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday the Chester Upland School District will not be in a financial position to open its doors next month.
Wolf has a plan to rectify the situation, resting partly on the backs of area charter schools.
Wolf has asked a Delaware County Judge to approve drastic reductions in the payments Chester-Upland sends to charter schools.
Without action, Wolf said Chester Upland’s almost $24 million operating deficit would prevent it from opening in September.
“I, for the life of me, don’t know how you can open financially with what they’s staring at,” said Wolf, in a telephone interview.
Wolf’s solution hinges on what many education advocates have long considered a flaw in the way the state funds charter schools for special education students.
Under the current system, charters have a financial incentive to enroll students with relatively mild educational disabilities.
It works like this: Districts must give charters whatever the districts spend, on average, on special education.
If a charter enrolls many children with less costly needs, the charter makes out financially.
And then a vicious cycle is created. With fewer mildly disabled students in the district, the district’s average cost climbs, which it then must pay to the charter.
Right now, Chester Upland sends about $40,000 to a charter that enrolls an area special education student, no matter the student’s disability.
The Wolf administration’s official court filing points out that the money sent by Chester-Upland School District to charters for special-ed is “disproportionately higher than any other school district sending students to the same schools.”
“This is patently inequitable,” added the filing.
Wolf wants to implement a new formula in Chester-Upland that would align charter special-education payments nearer to actual costs.
Wolf’s plan is based on the 2013 recommendations of the Legislature’s bipartisan special-education funding commission. It proposed a three-tiered system of funding for special education based on the severity of student need.
Those recommendations were never adopted by the General Assembly.
Under Wolf’s plan, Chester Upland’s special-ed charter bill would drop from $40,000 per student to $16,000 per student – saving the district $21 million.
“The special education issue is something that charter schools and public schools all across the commonwealth are struggling with,” said Wolf. “There’s an inducement to try to categorize more students than maybe should be categorized as special education just because of the way the formula works.”
Overall, Wolf’s proposal would decrease the amount Chester Upland spends on special-education payments to charters from $64.4 million to $39.8 million.
“As with any experiment, you need some tweaking,” Wolf added, of the way charters are funded in Pennsylvania.
Wolf also wants to cap the funding the state’s cybercharters receive for students from Chester Upland to just under $5,980, saving the district another $4 million.
The twofold approach would wipe away the district’s existing deficit, the governor said.
Wolf’s plan also calls for a forensic audit of the district’s finances and the appointment of a new turnaround specialist.
The petition to amend Chester Upland’s recovery plan was submitted by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Chester Upland receiver Francis Barnes, a Corbett administration appointee.
Without action, Chester Upland’s deficit will reach $46 million by the end of the school year.
Chester Upland as ‘poster child’
The district was first classified as financially distressed in 1994. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said that from 2003 to 2012, the district overspent $44.4 million.
Over the past five years, the state has sent Chester Upland $74 million in extra, one-time infusions of aid.
“I don’t really care who’s fault it is. Over the last 20-some years, I guess there’s plenty of blame to go around. But, regardless, it’s our problem,” said Wolf. “I thought we needed drastic action in Chester Upland, and this is my best effort at that drastic action.
Wolf’s plan assumes that the General Assembly will approve his bid to raise state education aid by a half-billion dollars. Negotiations over the state budget have dragged on since the fiscal year ended on June 30.
Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp described Chester Upland as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with how Pennsylvania funds special education in charter schools.
He lamented that the recommendations of the special-ed funding commission were still sitting on the shelf.
“Unfortunately, the General Assembly was unwilling to compromise and nothing got fixed. Meanwhile, until the state Legislature complies with their constitutional mandate to provide adequate, equitable, and predictable funding for all students in all schools, we can expect more of these fights over whether to rob Peter or Paul.”
Chester County Community Charter
If approved by the courts, Wolf’s plan for Chester Upland would have a large impact on the level of funding to Chester Community Charter School – the largest brick-and-mortar charter in the state.
Payments to charters account for 46 percent of Chester Upland’s budget, and most of that goes to CCCS. The school has 3,126 students, nearly as many as the 3,300 attending schools in the Chester Upland district.
CCCS is run by the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., owned by Vahan Gureghian, a prominent Republican in Montgomery and Delaware counties and major donor to political candidates. He was the largest individual campaign contributor to former Gov. Tom Corbett.
CCCS has traditionally enrolled a high proportion of special education students, most of them classified in the less expensive categories. According to the latest report to the state, nearly one in four CCCS students is in special ed – about the same rate as that in the Chester Upland district as a whole, but far above the statewide rate of 15.6 percent.
At CCCS, more than 27 percent of the students are classified as having a “speech and language impairment,” the least expensive disability. That is close to twice the state rate of 15.4 percent and 11 times the Chester Upland rate of 2.4 percent for that category.
By contrast, the CCCS percentage for the more costly categories of autism, emotional disturbance and intellectual disability are far below Chester Upland’s rates.
As the minimally disabled and least expensive special ed students are drained from Chester Upland, the district is left with students with more costly disabilities and its per-pupil spending rises. That then inflates the charter payment for the the next year.
The cost is also driven up because the state assumes that all districts have 16 percent
special education students. In cases like Chester Upland where the special education percentage is higher than 16 percent – at 24 percent, it is 50 percent higher – the total cost is divided by a lower number than it should be.
“They should be dividing by 24 percent,” said the Education Law Center’s Lapp. “If you have more than 16 percent, you get a higher number for the per pupil cost than you should.”
Due to these factors, since 2012, Chester Upland’s payment to charters for each special education student has gone up from $24,528 to $40,170 this year – an increase of 63 percent. Between last year and this, it went up 15 percent, from $34,931 to $40,170.
Charters can spend the money they receive for special education in any way they see fit.
Gureghian has declined to open the books of his management company to public scrutiny, arguing that it is a private business. He has not complied with court rulings on right-to-know requests.
Wolf said his proposal was not pointed at CCCS.
“It’s not. It’s pointed at trying to make sure that the Chester Upland School District is able to open for all kids on time,” said Wolf.
A spokesman for Chester Community Charter School did not return a request for comment, nor did the public relations firm that represents Gureghian.
CCCS was also implicated in allegations of standardized test cheating scandal, when a forensic audit for the 2009 tests found statistically improbable erasures of wrong-to-right answers.
A state investigation into what happened was aborted, and CCCS was allowed to investigate itself. No one connected with the school was ever held accountable, but when strict protocols were imposed, test scores dropped 30 points in each subject in each grade.
Gureghian and his wife, Danielle, were also disclosed to be the major donors to a PAC that gave to former state Treasurer Rob McCord, who resigned and pleaded guilty to extortion charges involving contributions to his failed gubernatorial campaign.
The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that federal investigators are still probing the conditions under which the contributions were made.
Harrisburg, Pa. –Today school districts, parents and two statewide associations filed an appeal in Pennsylvania Supreme Court challenging last month’s Commonwealth Court decision, which dismissed a lawsuit contesting the state’s failure to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania’s public schools as required by the Pennsylvania Constitution. The state Supreme Court is obligated to hear the appeal. Continue reading
April 21, 2015 – by Solomon Leach, Philadelphia Daily News – COMMONWEALTH Court yesterday dismissed a lawsuit accusing the state of failing to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania public schools.
The complaint was filed by six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, who said they plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“This is a question of paramount importance to all Pennsylvanians, and we always knew this would ultimately be decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia executive director Jennifer Clarke, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
The suit, filed in November, argued that former Gov. Tom Corbett, state lawmakers and the state Department of Education violated their constitutional obligation to provide all students with the opportunity to pass state-mandated academic standards. Oral arguments were held last month.
The ruling is the latest in a long line of Pennsylvania state court decisions affirming that school funding is a function of the Legislature and executive branch, and therefore not a matter for the courts.
Since the previous rulings, Pennsylvania adopted the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement and completed a costing-out study setting levels for what each school district needs to provide an adequate education.
Nonetheless, the court’s opinion, written by President Judge Dan Pellegrini, said those changes “do not confer funding discretion upon this court nor provide us with judicially manageable standards for determining whether the General Assembly has discharged its duty under the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers is working to propose a fair-funding formula that would likely provide poorer school districts with a higher percentage of state aid and reduce funding to wealthier districts.
April 21, 2015 – by Karen Langle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau – HARRISBURG — A panel of judges ruled Tuesday that the power to make decisions on school funding rests with the General Assembly and not the courts. Continue reading
April 21, 2015 – by Joel Mathis, Philadelphia Magazine – A Commonwealth Court ruling overturning a challenge to Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools will be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, education activists said Tuesday afternoon. (See the ruling below.) Continue reading
April 21, 2015 – by Kristen A. Graham and Martha Woodall, Philadelphia Inquirer – A lawsuit contending that Pennsylvania’s system of school funding is broken will move to the state’s top court, attorneys vowed Tuesday after a lower court dismissed the case brought by school districts, parents, and advocates. Continue reading
Commonwealth Court Refuses to Review Whether School Funding Complies with State Constitution
Harrisburg, Pa. – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania today issued an order in the lawsuit challenging the state’s failure to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania’s public schools. The lower court interpreted prior state Supreme Court precedent as eliminating any role for the courts in overseeing whether the legislature complies with the state constitution on school funding questions. Continue reading
March 18th, 2015 – National Opportunity to Learn Campaign – While Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature argue over his proposed budget increase for education, some districts and parents are taking another route to fight for increased funding for their schools: the courts.
March 12, 2015 – by Laura Benshoff and Dale Mezzacappa, Philadelphia Public School Notebook – Judges must order Pennsylvania’s governor and legislature to guarantee the constitutional right of every student to a “thorough and efficient” education, attorneys told a Commonwealth Court panel Wednesday. Continue reading
March 11, 2015 – by Kara Newhouse, LancasterOnline – As long as public schools are open and running, the state Legislature is meeting its constitutional obligation, argued legal representatives for state officials on Wednesday. Continue reading
March 11, 2015 – by Jan Murphy, Patriot News – Saying just turning on the lights and keeping the school doors open falls short of the Legislature’s constitutional obligation of providing a “thorough and efficient” education, education advocates argued that is why the court needs to intervene. Continue reading
March 12, 2015 – by Karen Langley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – HARRISBURG — Seeking to stymie a legal challenge to how Pennsylvania pays for its public schools, lawyers for the state told a panel of judges Wednesday that education funding is not a matter for the courts to decide. Continue reading
March 11, 2015 – by Katie Kyros, Fox43 – On Wednesday, attorneys for Pennsylvania school districts made arguments in Commonwealth Court that education funding in the state is so low, it’s unconstitutional. Continue reading
March 11, 2015 – by Joel Mathis, Philadelphia Magazine – It’s time for Pennsylvania’s courts to force the state legislature to properly fund state schools, attorneys representing a coalition of money-hungry school districts argued today before the Commonwealth Court at Harrisburg. Continue reading
March 11, 2015 – by Kristen Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer – Pennsylvania’s system of education funding is broken, and the courts must force lawmakers to make it right, attorneys for school districts, parents, and organizations that have sued the commonwealth told a panel of judges here Wednesday.
March 11, 2015 – Parents, advocates, and school district personnel descended on Commonwealth Court today to hear arguments against legislative leaders, state education officials, and Pennsylvania’s Governor for failure to uphold the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education. Continue reading