Education Law Center alleges discrimination in Pa. alternative ed programs

Pennsylvania’s Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth programs are supposed to help turn around disorderly public school students, but they are academically inadequate and discriminatory, according to a complaint by the nonprofit Education Law Center.

The ELC alleges that a disproportionate number of African-Americans and students with disabilities are sent to them.

While African-Americans make up only 15 percent of the state’s public school students, they made up 35 percent of the pupils in the special programs in 2010-11.

Similarly, 16 percent of students identify as having disabilities; these students account for 44 percent of those in the alternative education programs.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“The data is really shocking,” said ELC staff attorney David Lapp. “This is not isolated to one or two districts. It’s widespread. It has been going on for many, many years. And actually, it’s getting worse.”

Nearly 14,500 Pennsylvania students were enrolled in the special programs last year, according to the ELC complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice. Students can be deemed “disruptive” for being violent, using drugs at school, or habitually skipping class, among other things.

To make matters worse, Lapp said, students usually get an inferior education in the alternative education system. They often receive fewer hours of education, he said, and are taught by less-qualified teachers.

“The problem is that the law does not require very much to be done in these programs,” he said. “We see this as contributing to what we call the school-to-prison pipeline in Pennsylvania.”

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the state is reviewing the complaint. He declined to comment further. 

A spokesman for the Philadelphia School District did not respond to a request for comment.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal