Who is responsible when budget cuts require a school district to drop classes?
Following budget cuts started in the 2011-2012 school year, parents in Philadelphia filed 825 complaints to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Their complaints ranged from overcrowding in classrooms, to cutting back on courses such as art and foreign languages, to a lack of guidance counselors in schools.
In a lawsuit against the department, seven of those parents — along with the Public Interest Law Center and Parents United for Public Education — claimed the state ignored its own protocol to investigate the complaints under its purview to correct “curriculum deficiencies.”
Parents received letters from former Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq in which she responded to complaints with form letters calling it a “local matter” and referred parents back to their local districts.
A Commonwealth Court judge has shared an opinion on the case, Allen vs. Dumaresq, supporting some of the parents’ complaints and moving the case forward.
Judge says some curriculum complaints valid
Judge Robert Simpson cited some of the education department’s own regulations in his opinion, particularly those that define a “curriculum deficiency,” when deciding not to dismiss the parents’ case against the state.
According to Section 4.81 of Title 22 of the Pennsylvania Administrative Code, the secretary of education “will receive and investigate allegations of curriculum deficiencies.” The code then spells out what a curriculum deficiency is, and how the secretary can confirm one exists.
Lack of access to foreign language courses, art and physical education are all listed as curriculum deficiencies. Factors outside of specific courses, such as class size or loss of guidance counselors, are not listed.
If a deficiency is found, it’s the secretary’s job to hold the district accountable for fixing it.
Or, in legalese, “If the secretary determines that a curriculum deficiency exists, the school entity shall be required to submit to the secretary for approval a plan to correct the deficiency.”
C.W. Henry parent and plaintiff Robin Roberts filed three complaints. One of them, that her son stopped receiving the “gifted” coursework required in his individualized education plan, or IEP, is supported by Simpson’s opinion. An IEP is a state-mandated document that describes mandatory coursework for some students.
Roberts said she received no response to her complaint from the state.
Roberts said her son now goes to a magnet high school but still struggled with high school-level science. “We will not know if [losing gifted classes] adversely affected him” for a while, she said.
While she said she’s happy the court will keep considering one of her complaints, she said she’d like the department to “look at some of the things they said aren’t curriculum deficiencies.”
Simpson did support some of the department’s objections, namely that some of the issues are not spelled out by the legal code. Those complaints not addressed in the law are not the responsibility of state to investigate and correct, according to his opinion. Four of the seven original parent plaintiffs therefore have a case.
“This is really part of a larger effort to hold the Pennsylvania Department of Education accountable to its role in the success of the Philadelphia School District,” said Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center.
Roberts said she’s tired of the school district and the state blaming each other for the condition of Philadelphia’s schools. “In Philadelphia we are failing horribly … people who should know better are pointing their fingers at somebody else to fix the problem,” she said.
In an emailed statement, a department representative said it “does not specifically comment on active litigation.” The email did note the change in administration since the case was filed, saying “Governor Wolf remains committed to restoring the massive cuts made to commonwealth schools over the last four years, which led to larger class sizes, the elimination of vital programs and layoffs of educators.”
The Public Interest Law Center is encouraging parents, in and outside of Philadelphia, to continue filing complaints through a form on the website myphillyschools.com.
The case will now go into the discovery phase, where the plaintiffs plan to find out whether the department has investigated any complaints filed by parents statewide.
Simpson’s opinion does not mean the department has to investigate any of its past complaints or compel it to specific action regarding the plaintiffs.