Philly Complaints Litigation: Allen v. PDE

In Pennsylvania, all students are legally entitled to certain education services and adequate curriculums. In Philadelphia however, many of these education services are not being fulfilled.

In September 2013, Philadelphia schools began operating on what District officials themselves described as a “Doomsday Budget.” Soon after, the Law Center, Parents United, and the Media Mobilizing Project launched myphillyschools.com. Through this online portal and through paper filings, Philadelphia parents have submitted over 825 complaints to PDE documenting dire school conditions. PDE, which has governed Philadelphia public schools since 2001, is required to investigate these formal complaints.

After no response from the PDE, The Law Center filed a suit on behalf of seven Philadelphia School District parents and Parents United for Public Education in the Commonwealth Court alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has violated its legal obligation to investigate allegations of massive curriculum deficiencies in Philadelphia public schools.

On October 5, 2016, as part of a settlement of this lawsuit, PDE created its first-ever formal policy and procedure for accepting and responding to complaints from parents, teachers and advocates about curriculum deficiencies in public schools.

Case Updates

Pa. Department of Ed. Establishes First-Ever Curriculum Complaints Process

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has created its first-ever formal policy and procedure for accepting and responding to complaints from parents, teachers and advocates about curriculum deficiencies in public schools. The new process results from the settlement of a lawsuit we helped Philadelphia parents bring against PDE.

In 2014, following massive budget cuts by the state legislature, we worked with Parents United for Public Education, Media Mobilizing Project and City Councilmembers helped Philadelphia parents, teachers and advocates take advantage of a little-known state law that allowed them to file complaints with PDE alleging that the budget cuts had left students without state-mandated curriculum offerings such as foreign languages, physical education, and gifted programming.

After 825 complaints were filed, with few responses from PDE, we then helped parents bring a lawsuit (Allen v. Rivera) to ensure the state would investigate the complaints. In June 2015, the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling that affirmed PDE’s responsibility to investigate complaints about curriculum deficiencies. In another major win for parents, in December 2015 PDE found and declared curriculum deficiencies in four Philadelphia schools and ordered the School District of Philadelphia to create corrective action plans to remedy the problems.

Today, parents and advocates are applauding PDE for creating and implementing a new and transparent policy and procedure to make sure all future complaints are appropriately addressed. PDE has created a form for use in filing complaints. PDE will make this form accessible on its website and will circulate information on the new policy and procedure to all school districts and charter schools across the state. Parents can also submit complaints online through myphillyschools.com.

“I want to thank the Pennsylvania Department of Education for making this process clear and functional for parents so that we can have a voice in our children’s education and hold the state accountable to their needs,” said Robin Roberts, a Philadelphia parent who filed a number of complaints in 2014. “I filed a complaint after the School District of Philadelphia eliminated gifted programming and my son was left with inadequate academic classes. Because of my complaint and PDE’s action, this problem is now being addressed. I plan to keep using the complaints process if problems persist or new problems arise at my children’s schools and I encourage all parents to use this for curricular problems that their children may face.”

“We commend the Pennsylvania Department of Education for working with parents to create and publish this policy and procedure,” said Ben Geffen, Public Interest Law Center attorney for the plaintiffs. “As the state legislature continues to fail to adequately fund public education, this complaints process provides parents with an important tool to make sure the state is aware of and investigating the curriculum deficiencies we know exist in so many underfunded school districts across the Commonwealth.”

“Philadelphia parents are some of the greatest advocates for our city’s children. This new process provides them an additional avenue to document the serious shortfalls caused by underfunding and ensure all students receive a high-quality public education,” said Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who supported the launch of the initiative in partnership with former council member Bill Green.

“This victory by Philadelphia parents is a victory for every parent across the Commonwealth,” said Councilmember Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, one of the plaintiffs of Allen v. Rivera. Gym and Parents United traveled to dozens of schools to help parents file the initial 825 complaints. “As our legislature continues to stall on fair and equitable funding, this complaints process is a means of ensuring parents have a voice in the quality of education of their child. I urge parents across the Commonwealth to embrace this process and start using it now to make our public education system work for everyone, everywhere.”

Under the new process, PDE staff members will review complaints to ensure they are related to curriculum, conduct an investigation within 90 days after reviewing a complaint, and investigate whether curriculum deficiencies exist. Where there are deficiencies, PDE will order school districts to create corrective action plans and will review the implementation of those plans.

Parents will soon be able to access PDE’s complaint online, or they can submit complaints online through myphillyschools.com. Complaints can be about curriculum deficiencies such as failure to provide instruction in science and technology, social studies, career education, physical education, language arts, or foreign language. The state law does not apply to complaints about a school’s non-instructional staffing, such as guidance counselors and nurses, nor does it cover facilities, such as building capacity and conditions.

PA Dept. of Ed. Declares Philly Schools Offer Deficient Curricula

In a significant victory for Philadelphia school parents, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has found curriculum deficiencies in four Philadelphia schools and ordered the District to create corrective action plans within 45 days. The Department’s action against the District comes in response to complaints parents filed in 2013 and a lawsuit they filed in 2014.

The curriculum deficiencies—at Bodine High School of International Affairs, the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush and the C.W. Henry School—were brought to PDE’s attention as part of 825 complaints filed two years ago by parents from 75 schools after massive state budget cuts forced the District to slash programming. The complaints of curriculum deficiencies at their children’s schools alerted the Department to problems such as lack of music, art, physical education, gifted and foreign language offerings, as well as to a range of other concerns like the lack of counselors and nurses. When state officials ignored the complaints, telling parents via form letter that the problems were “local matters,” some of the parents went to court to force the state to investigate and confirm the impact of the state’s cuts on their children’s education.

“When the state failed to respond, we could not just sit back and watch. Our children were facing dire situations at school, many of which persist today,” said Robin Roberts, a parent involved in the case. “My son was in gifted classes for years, until suddenly the district eliminated all gifted programming and left him and other students with inadequate academic classes. Meanwhile the state did not even know the district had eliminated required gifted curriculum from all schools.”

Seven parents and Parents United for Public Education filed the suit now called Allen v. Rivera with help from the Public Interest Law Center. Late last week, through discovery in the case, parents obtained a letter sent by PDE to the District that details the investigation PDE began in response to the suit. This is the first time PDE has ever investigated a complaint of curriculum deficiencies under a state regulation that requires PDE to oversee local school districts’ curricula.

“It is long past time for the Pennsylvania Department of Education to take an interest in the quality of education in Philadelphia. We are delighted the department has decided to take action,” said Amy Laura Cahn, staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center. “These actions show the Department has finally acknowledged its legal responsibilities.”

The letter shows PDE first forwarded copies of the complaints to the school district in 2013, without requiring any response. In June 2015, the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling in Allen v. Rivera that affirmed PDE’s responsibility to investigate the complaints. Then, after an almost two-year gap without any action by PDE or the District, PDE re-sent the complaints to the District and requested a response. The District did not respond to PDE’s multiple requests, except for sending an email about conditions of gifted programming at one school—a response that PDE deemed “inadequate.” As a result, PDE has now entered a finding that curriculum deficiencies exist at four schools. PDE has also directed the District to create and implement corrective action plans, which will benefit all students at the four schools, not just those whose parents filed complaints.

“Neither my son nor any student gets a second chance to go through school. While we are happy the Department is starting to deal with the unacceptable conditions in Philadelphia schools, we are disappointed that in the two years since we filed our complaints so many children have had to attend starved schools,” said Tim Allen, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and parent of a senior at Bodine High School for International Affairs. “In the future, we hope both District and state officials will take parental complaints seriously and launch prompt, meaningful investigations.”

PDE’s letter has positive implications well beyond just these four schools. By filing complaints and taking legal action, we have blazed a trail for all Pennsylvania parents to get results when their child’s school isn’t offering the curriculum required by state law,” said Helen Gym, City Councilor-elect and outgoing head of Parents United for Public Education. “Parents across the Commonwealth should continue to file complaints, knowing that PDE has now acknowledged its responsibility to take action.”

The District is required to create corrective action plans for these four schools by mid-January. PDE will have to approve the plans and oversee their implementation.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit will continue, to ensure that PDE will fulfill the full range of its duties under the state’s regulation about curriculum deficiencies.

Department of Education Submits Answer to our Petition for Review

After the Commonwealth Court rejected arguments by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) that the department could not be compelled to investigate curriculum deficiencies, even though state regulations require it to do so, PDE submitted its Answer to our Petition for Review. The State continues to claim no responsibility for issues in Philadelphia schools. Click here to read PDE’s Answer.

The petitioners have 30 days to reply to this Answer.

School Complaints Case Goes Forward Against the Pennsylvania Department of Education

Parents who went to Court to force state education officials to investigate hundreds of complaints about woefully inadequate conditions in the School District of Philadelphia may continue to pursue their case under a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision issued today. The Commonwealth Court rejected arguments by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) in Allen v. Dumaresq that the department could not be compelled to investigate curriculum deficiencies, even though state regulations require it to do so.

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, hundreds of Philadelphia parents filed complaints with PDE about the curriculum and other issues in their schools under a procedure set forth under state regulations. In all about 825 complaints were filed, from 75 different schools. State officials did not respond at all to most families; in those few instances where the state did respond, it denied that the state has any responsibility for conditions in Philadelphia schools.

Through their lawyers at the Public Interest Law Center, seven parents and Parents United for Public Education filed suit in Commonwealth Court last August, alleging that PDE had violated its legal obligation to investigate the complaints.

Tim Allen, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and the father of a rising senior at Bodine High School for International Affairs, stated: “I filed a complaint with PDE because my son’s high school quit offering four years of foreign languages, even though the school’s theme is international affairs. PDE wrote back and said they wouldn’t do anything about it because it was a ‘local matter.’ I hope that after today’s decision, PDE will finally fulfill its mandate to oversee the public schools.”

PDE asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming that the parents’ allegations did not address deficiencies in “curriculum.” The Commonwealth Court disagreed. The court found the parents had alleged deficiencies regarding the elimination of physical education and gifted classes, reduction of foreign language offerings, dilution of the accelerated nature of honors programs, and decrease of art programs. The court also held that PDE did not have to investigate parental complaints about certain other issues on the grounds that they were non-“curricular,” such as a shortage of school counselors, overcrowded classrooms, and squalid building conditions, although the court did note the impact of these areas on “a student’s educational experience and the proficiency level achieved.”

Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney for the parents, said: “We are pleased the Court reaffirmed state’s ultimate responsibility for public education in Pennsylvania. Here that means PDE must investigate parental complaints about curriculum deficiencies.”

Law Center Responds to State’s Preliminary Objections

In January we responded to the state’s preliminary objections in our legal challenge against the Secretary and Department of Education’s failure to investigate allegations filed by Philly parents.

The state claims it did investigate the more than 800 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) during the 2013-2014 school year.

However, we do not believe that the state’s actions, such as sending form letters to some parents, referring some allegations to the School District of Philadelphia, and failing to communicate entirely with other parents, constitute an “investigation.” Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (PDE) response to 825 allegations was to do nothing.

Allegations from parents include stories like those from petitioner Tim Allen: Mr. Allen filed a complaint because his son’s high school classrooms were so packed that desks were no more than one foot apart and teachers could not move around the room of students. In addition, a once vibrant foreign language program was reduced to just one 2-year Spanish course. Another parent, petitioner Christianne Kapps filed complaints because her daughter had no physical education classes. And still other complaints included stories like petitioner Christine Plush’s, who stated that without full-time guidance counselors at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, “Students who are in emotion[al] crisis are neglected or other staff are spread thin in an effort to support them.”

The state also claims that most of these allegations, such as crowded classrooms and lack of guidance counselors, don’t constitute curricular matters and that the PDE is therefore not required to investigate non-curricular matters. Contrary to those claims, we believe that these issues are truly curriculum deficiencies.

In fact, state law and school district regulations both recognize that things like guidance counselors and appropriate building conditions are essential to all students achieving their academic potential:

“Classrooms without room to maneuver prevent teachers from engaging one-on-one with students and tailoring instruction to students’ individual strengths and needs; classrooms without space between desks hinder teachers from teaching students how to work collaboratively in small groups or achieve the discipline required to cover the mandated topics of instruction, both important developmental skills. Accordingly, each of these allegations is an instance in which “planned instruction” in the District was not “implemented in a manner designed to result in the achievement at the proficient level by all students,” 22 Pa. Code § 4.3, and thus each is an “allegation[] of curriculum deficiencies” requiring investigation by the Secretary under 22 Pa. Code § 4.81…Allegations of overcrowded classrooms, wretched building conditions, and insufficient overall staffing are thus allegations of curriculum deficiencies that the Secretary must investigate under Section 4.81.

Now that we have filed our response to the state’s preliminary objections, the state will have an opportunity to reply. Then, we expect a three-judge panel will issue a decision.

Department of Education Continues to Claim No Responsibility for Philadelphia School District Issues

On November 25, the state filed a brief claiming that issues in Philadelphia schools were investigated and that the state has no responsibility for these problems.

The state claims that it did investigate the more than 800 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) during the 2013-2014 school year, many of which came through our site, myphillyschools.com. The state also claims that most of these issues don’t concern curricular matters, choosing to ignore the allegations that tell of a system that has been defunded to the bare bones, with schools packing as many as 45 students into a single classroom, dropping foreign language and physical education classes, eliminating guidance counselors, and cutting out other curricular basics.

In addition, the state claims that it is within the authority of the Secretary of Education to refer the allegations to the School District for investigation even though the allegations are about the School District, which is currently run by the state.

The state is also disputing our definition of “investigation,” asking the court to defer to its interpretation of that term from one of PDE’s own regulations.

Attorneys for the Law Center will file a response in January, after which a three-judge panel will decide on the preliminary objections, likely without oral argument.

Click here to read the state’s brief in support of preliminary objections.

PA Dept. of Ed. Claims No Responsibility for Problems in Philadelphia Schools 

On October 10th, the state asked the Commonwealth Court to dismiss the lawsuit filed against it for failing to investigate allegations made by public school parents in Philadelphia.

During the 2013-2014 school year, parents and other concerned citizens filed more than 800 complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education about curriculum deficiencies in the School District of Philadelphia. The lawsuit, filed in September by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on behalf of seven Philadelphia parents and Parents United for Public Education, challenges the failure of the Pennsylvania Department of Education to investigate parental allegations. The allegations tell of a system that has been defunded to the bare bones, with schools packing as many as 45 students into a single classroom, dropping foreign language and physical education classes, eliminating guidance counselors, and cutting out other curricular basics.

Today, the department claimed that such issues do not concern “curriculum deficiencies” and therefore the state can ignore these allegations, and doesn’t even need to write back to the parents. In addition, the state claims that it is within its authority to refer the allegations to the School District for investigation, even though the allegations are about the School District.

“It is outrageous for the state to disclaim any responsibility for these problems,” said Benjamin Geffen, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “The state’s failure to fully fund public education in Philadelphia and in districts across the state is the real reason our students must contend with grim conditions when they walk into schools each day.”

The court has not yet set a schedule for this case. Attorneys for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia note they will encourage the court to move this case along quickly.

PA Senate Democratic Caucus Sends Letter to Secretary Dumaresq (September 2014)

The entire Pennsylvania Democratic Caucus sent a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) shortly after a lawsuit alleging that the PDE has violated its legal obligation to investigate allegations of massive curriculum deficiencies in Philadelphia public schools was filed.

The Democratic Caucus asked Secretary Dumaresq what the PDE did to follow up on the more than 800 complaints gathered last year against Philadelphia schools. The caucus also urged immediate action due to the School District of Philadelphia funding crisis.

Click here to read the letter.

Philadelphia Parents’ Lawsuit Challenges Failure of Pennsylvania Department of Education (September 2014)

Seven Philadelphia School District parents and Parents United for Public Education file a lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has violated its legal obligation to investigate allegations of massive curriculum deficiencies in Philadelphia public schools. These plaintiffs are represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (Law Center).

In September 2013, Philadelphia schools began operating on what District officials themselves described as a “Doomsday Budget.” Soon after, the Law Center, Parents United, and the Media Mobilizing Project launched myphillyschools.com. Through this online portal and through paper filings, Philadelphia parents have submitted over 825 complaints to PDE documenting dire school conditions. PDE, which has governed Philadelphia public schools since 2001, is required to investigate these formal complaints. But after one year, the vast majority of parents have received only a generic form letter or no response at all.

Problems alleged by parents include alarming levels of overcrowding such that teachers can no longer walk between desks to interact with individual students; increasingly limited curricular offerings; a distressing lack of counselors; and squalid and insufficient toilet facilities.

Tim Allen, a parent involved in the lawsuit, hopes the court will force PDE to investigate the crisis conditions found in schools like his son’s, the William Bodine High School for International Affairs. “I want my son, and all kids in the city of Philadelphia, to have equal access to a really good education that they can use to get into college,” Allen said. “Teachers and counselors are trying their hardest with the limited resources they have, but if the state will not investigate what is going on in city schools, Philadelphia’s kids will continue to suffer.”

“The breadth of complaints we’ve received prove that the state must investigate the quality of education in the School District of Philadelphia,” said Helen Gym of Parents United. “It is simply unacceptable for the state to ignore the claims of hundreds of parents representing 40 percent of District schools. We encourage parents to continue to make their voices heard and document issues in schools by submitting complaints through myphillyschools.com.”

“The State must be held accountable for its failure to address these allegations,” said Ben Geffen, Law Center staff attorney and counsel for the plaintiffs. “Secretary Dumaresq must know that responding to parents’ pleas with form letters and silence not only violates the trust of parents, but is also a clear violation of her department’s legal duties.”

Click here to read the full petition for review.

Law Center to Re-launch Myphillyschools.com (August 2014)

Law Center to re-launch myphillyschools.com after Pennsylvania Department of Education fails to act on 825 allegations of curriculum deficiencies in Philadelphia.

Staff attorney Amy Laura Cahn provided an update on the Philly Complaints Project and myphillyschools.com at a press conference on Thursday hosted by State Senator Vincent Hughes. In 2013, the Philly Complaints Project provided an Amy Laura Philly Complaints Press Conferenceopportunity for parents, caregivers, students and teachers to register their concerns about conditions of Philadelphia District schools with the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education.

As many as 825 allegations of curriculum deficiencies occurring within the District were collected and forwarded to the Secretary, many of which were submitted through myphillyschools.com, a web site set up by Parents United for Public Education and other groups and elected officials.

However, Ms. Cahn said, “Even though Pennsylvania law unambiguously obligates the Secretary of Education to investigate allegations of curriculum deficiencies, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has declined to conduct any meaningful investigation, let alone to take corrective action.”

The complaints cover a wide range of deficiencies, many of which were also referenced by State Senator Hughes at the press conference. Click here to read his fact-finding report on school conditions from last school year.

The allegations tell stories of elementary schools without a single guidance counselor, physical education teacher, art teacher, or nurse; of the decline in educational quality because students feel unsafe in school; and of physical conditions, particularly unsanitary toilet conditions, that interfere with a child’s capacity to learn, among many others.

The re-launch of myphillyschools.com will serve as a mechanism for parents, caregivers, teachers, and students to document the crisis conditions with which Philadelphia’s young people are forced to live.

Ms. Cahn said, “It is critical that people throughout the city, state and nation understand the everyday reality that underfunding has created for Philadelphia public school students and their families.”

The Law Center is planning to file a lawsuit based on these complaints.

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For inquiries or interviews, contact Barb Grimaldi at 267.546.1304 or bgrimaldi@pilcop.org.

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