A child dealt with the death of a parent with no counselor available during a time of extreme distress.
A high school student started each period searching for desks and chairs because her classes were so overcrowded.
A 7-year-old with emotional and learning needs began regressing and scratched himself bloody during class because a classroom aide and full-time counselor were no longer available, as they had been the year before.
A Bartram High parent filed a complaint in October about multiple assaults, disruptions, and a lack of staffing, while her honors student struggled. “I have serious concerns about my child’s safety,” she wrote, presaging violence at Bartram that would make national news later in the year.
These are just a handful of examples among the 825 complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) by parents, educators, and students last year as the District’s “doomsday budget” unfolded. None of these complaints earned an investigation from state officials.
Pennsylvania state law allows for any individual to file a complaint with PDE for curriculum deficiencies and obligates the state to conduct an investigation of that complaint. That was the intention when Parents United for Public Education and our attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia launched a major campaign last year to hold the state accountable for the consequences of enforcing a doomsday budget.
Parents responded. Hundreds of complaints poured in from more than 90 different schools across the District. From overcrowding, to school safety, to lack of textbooks, to school services, the complaints show that parents and families care deeply about the quality of education in schools all across this city.
Parents United believes the complaints had some effect on shaking loose more than $45 million in federal money that the state was holding in return for teachers’ union concessions. Much of the $45 million last fall went toward special education services and the restoration of some guidance counselors and other school-based personnel. In a handful of cases involving special needs children (who have more specific legal protections), the state ordered the District to provide full-time school nurses.
However, for almost all non-special-needs families, and even for most special-needs complainants, the state failed to make any attempt at an investigation. Most families received a standard form letter informing them that the issue was a local one and would be referred to the School District. None of the families received a response from the School District.
At the very least, we expected a Department of Education investigation into these complaints. We expected a phone call and conversation, a review of school and District budgets, feedback to each complainant, and corrective action where the District failed to meet its obligations.
What we got instead was such a level of neglect that, after months of work and hundreds of hours on our part documenting and following up with complainants, we had no choice but to file a lawsuit and ask a court to compel the state to act responsibly.
More than anything else, the complaints underscore the absurdity of the state’s governance of Philadelphia public schools for the last 13 years. For more than a decade, Philadelphia has been under a state takeover in which the state exercises full powers to drastically alter the District’s governance structure in an effort to address a crisis situation. Yet when parents complain about the actual crisis in schools – a lack of resources, appropriate staffing, the absence of required programs and services – the state claims that this is a local responsibility over which they have no power and thus no responsibility.
For example, the state claims that its actions are all about financial accountability. As a result, it oversaw the closing of 30 public schools and thousands of layoffs. But when it comes to holding districts accountable for the academic fallout of such decisions, the state cheerleaders suddenly scatter.
It’s more than just legal convenience. It’s what we mean by an abdication of responsibility.
When our very own state-controlled District enacts policies that violate the state code and students’ legal and academic rights, it is absolutely the state Department of Education’s responsibility to act immediately and decisively to not only investigate the complaints but to correct violations. For this reason, 23 state senators, led by Sens. Vincent Hughes and Shirley Kitchen, sent a letter this week to acting state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq demanding to know what follow-up her office had made.
Although many within the public have called for such actions, this lawsuit calls the courts into the matter. We don’t have rose-colored glasses when it comes to lawsuits and the courts. We understand that what courts often establish is the bare minimum. As of now, we don’t even have that.
As a second year approaches with doomsday-proportion budget scenarios, we ask parents and caregivers not to accept the circumstances within our schools. Along with our partner, the Media Mobilizing Project, we’ve reopened our website www.myphillyschools.com, where parents, educators, students, and the public can continue to file complaints and demand state action.
We are coordinating with parents and school leaders at back-to-school nights and Home and School Association meetings. This isn’t about punishing principals and school staff. It’s about a clear documentation of insufficient resources and placing accountability squarely back onto the state, where it belongs.
We’ll keep on holding our state responsible for the conditions of our schools. We hope you’ll help us do that, too.
Find out more about your legal rights and how to file a complaint at www.myphillyschools.com.
Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.