Philly Parents Launch Lawsuit against State Education Department

Parents and parent advocacy groups in Philadelphia have had it with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Parents report that complaints about deficiencies in the district are being met with a generic form letter, or worse still, silence.

Wilford Shamlin III of The Philadelphia Tribune reports that the council for the plaintiffs, Ben Geffen, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, said the lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court should be considered a message to acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq.

"The state must be held accountable for its failure to address these allegations," he said. "Secretary Dumaresq must know that responding to parents' pleas with form letters and silence not only violates the trust of parents, but is also a clear violation of her department's legal duties."

Parents are upset about language classes that used to cover four years being cut to two years. They are afraid that this will affect their children's chances to get into the colleges of their choice. Parents are also concerned about overcrowded classrooms, reductions in instructional programs, staff reductions, and poor maintenance of school bathrooms.

All of these issues were addressed by parents on the website, which was launched last year, in the form of more than 800 complaints. Attorneys for the law center aggregated the complaints and sent the most serious to the state PDE. After almost a year, some parents were sent a generic letter, but many were not even acknowledged by the PDE.

This is the fourth year that the district has had massive budget cuts and been governed by the state, according to Daniel Denvir of the Philadelphia City Paper. The complaint includes reports of:

"…alarming levels of overcrowding such that teachers can no longer walk between desks to interact with individual students; increasingly limited curricular offerings; a distressing lack of counselors, and squalid and insufficient toilet facilities."

The law center has alerted the PDE that another lawsuit is is on its way which will challenge the constitutionality of under-funding districts across Pennsylvania. Even parents who approve of their children's schools and who are happy their children are there want the PDE to know that schools are being "starved of resources", says Kristen Graham of The Inquirer.

Dan McQuade of PhillyMag adds a few more parental complaints to the growing list. According to the lawsuit, the allegations included:

"…overcrowded classrooms, the lack of classes such as art, music, foreign language and physical education, cancelled programs for the mentally gifted, the absence of facilities such as libraries or school materials such as textbooks that resulted in loss of instruction for students, shortages of staff … and unsafe or unsanitary conditions that interfered with students' ability to respond to the curriculum."

A letter from 23 senators was sent to Dumaresq asking for her reaction to the lawsuit, criticizing the level of funding for the schools, and asking what follow-up was made by her department to investigate the many complaints.

The senators continued by emphasizing the urgency of the situation, stating that the district does not have, at this time, adequate funding to remedy last year's level of service.

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