Ken Cooper knows the inside story of how special education works — and often doesn’t — in the Philadelphia School District.
As assistant general counsel in the district’s special-ed law department, he’s seen and heard eight years of behind-the-scenes decisions that, in his eyes, showed the district to be an “uncaring, bloated bureaucracy.”
“I spent probably the greater part of my time each day fighting with and trying to contact my client [the school district] — not fighting with parent attorneys or parents,” said Cooper.
“People [in the district] were more interested sometimes in ‘fighting-the-fight,’ which was ridiculous because you don’t fight a fight where a kid’s involved,” he said. “You try to fix the problem.”
Even when his investigations clearly found evidence of district wrong-doing, Cooper said it was “very difficult… to get somebody to respond to the problem.”
And when the district did respond to issues, Cooper said all too often it would develop a whole new program “with all the bells and whistles,” but then, a few months later, he’d find that school faculty weren’t aware of the changes, and kids’ needs were still being unmet.
In 2010, after years of mounting frustration in which felt like he was all-too-often fighting with the district to get it to “do the right thing,” he quit the post.
In the years since, Cooper has become a private-practice attorney representing families with children whose legally-mandated needs haven’t been met. Many of these cases are against his former employer.
Shortly after beginning his private practice, the Philadelphia School District filed an injunction against Cooper to attempt to stop him from practicing special-ed law, arguing that Cooper had a conflict of interest.
Cooper won that lawsuit, and since his Bala-Cynwyd-based private-practice has been thriving.
In the interview above, Cooper shares what he’s learned about special-education law from his vantage points inside and out of the Philadelphia School District.