A high school for world affairs that offers only one foreign language. An arts school without sufficient art classes. No physical education or gifted education in certain schools.
Such situations are so common now that they barely muster a shake of the head or a Philly shrug. But no more.
In December, the Pennsylvania Department of Education finally weighed in on these educational deficiencies and declared that students’ rights are being violated in Philadelphia’s public schools. The department’s ruling follows two years of advocacy by the local nonprofit Parents United for Public Education to demand accountability for what’s happening in our classrooms.
In 2013, after massive state budget cuts that resulted in the loss of thousands of staff members and programs, Parents United worked with parents as well as Home and School associations across the city to file more than 800 complaints about severe overcrowding; the lack of music, art, physical and gifted education; and the need for nurses and counselors in schools.
When state officials ignored our complaints, Parents United filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the state investigate the conditions within Philadelphia schools. Our focus was a little-known provision within the state code that required the state to investigate complaints and fix any problems with curriculum violations.
Most people know that the Pennsylvania state constitution mandates that students be provided with a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” But the Pennsylvania state code also includes specific provisions requiring schools to employ “sufficient numbers of qualified professional employees” and “active learning experiences in art, music, dance and theatre” to every student in every year of the primary grades.
In June, the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling upholding the responsibility of the state to investigate these complaints and fix those that are in violation of the state code. As a result of the investigation, the state is now forcing the School District to provide a corrective action plan to fix specific curriculum problems – and it has issued a 45-day deadline that allows parents to hold the District accountable for doing so.
Although the ruling is limited (the court focused on four schools), the larger message is clear.
In stripping schools of services, the District has unfairly limited educational experiences and created unwelcoming school environments for students. State politics have exacerbated – and helped drive – these District-level failures by focusing on slash-and-burn budget cuts and prioritizing expansions of charters at the expense of existing public schools.
In the midst of the current state budget drama, it’s important to remember that our real focus must be to guarantee that all our public schools actually provide a sound education to all students.
Parents United was founded with the mission to ensure a baseline level of resources for every child in every school in this city. We intend to be relentless and focused in establishing, prioritizing, and restoring those services to schools.
The District cannot hide behind statewide austerity as it closes buildings, disrupts communities, and reduces opportunity in our schools. At the same time, the state cannot recklessly open up the floodgates of unregulated charter expansion with no regard to the cost to District-managed schools.
As a city councilwoman, I will prioritize essential services in schools as the center of my education work. Our office will work to ensure that every school is guaranteed a baseline set of resources, staff, and programming for success. We need to have an agenda that prioritizes budgets and additional funding toward this effort. And I will expect a full-scale assessment of how the District is or is not advancing toward its mission and constitutional obligation.
The findings of the state’s investigation are a major win for parents who have raised alarms too often to deaf ears about the deplorable condition of our schools.The victory points to the work ahead: We must hold both our school district and the state accountable to our community.
We must push them to do their duty and provide our children with the education they deserve, not just the one for which officials have leftover money.
By forcing the District and the state to confront the inadequacies in our schools, parents are leading the way in holding leadership accountable to families and voters.
I’ve always advocated that parents play a unique role in rejecting the punishing and neglectful narrative around our children and schools. Today, parents proved once again that our children will not be ignored and that we will not stop in our demands for quality and equity for our communities.
On behalf of Parents United for Public Education, I would like to thank our attorneys at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, attorney David Lapp, and the Media Mobilizing Project.
Parents across the Commonwealth can file complaints online at www.myphillyschools.com to register concerns about curriculum deficiencies in schools.
Helen Gym is a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education and an at-large city councilwoman-elect. She takes office in January. Gym is a former Notebook editor and board member.